Nora Vargas and Sen. Ben Hueso / Photos by Jamie Scott Lytle and Megan Wood

The South Bay has been hit harder by the coronavirus than most other parts of the county. Not only has the region – and particularly the Latinos living there – seen higher infection rates from the virus, but face some of the highest unemployment rates in the county as the virus decimates the region’s economy.

Four of the five ZIP codes with the highest positive coronavirus test rates are located in the county’s District 1, which includes Chula Vista, Coronado, Imperial Beach, National City and communities within the city of San Diego, like Barrio Logan, Lincoln Park, Logan Heights, Otay and San Ysidro. The district also includes parts of the unincorporated county, like Bonita and East Otay Mesa. The ZIP codes with the highest unemployment rates include Logan Heights, National City and San Ysidro, according to a recent SANDAG report. The region’s Latinos experience the highest infection rates of any group in any region in the county, including Latinos in other regions, according to county data.

Amid this unprecedented crisis, District 1 residents will be voting for a new county supervisor to represent them. And the role of the county during this public health crisis is clearer than ever.

Even before the pandemic, the election to replace outgoing Supervisor Greg Cox was set to be historic: Cox, who is White and Republican, has held the seat for more than two decades; the candidates vying to replace him are both Latino Democrats.

For whoever wins – be it Nora Vargas, a Southwestern Community College trustee and former Planned Parenthood executive or state Sen. Ben Hueso – it’s becoming exceedingly clear that their first order of business will be to help the county continue to respond to the pandemic, and particularly to its disproportionate impact on District 1, and ensure an equitable economic recovery.

Hueso and Vargas largely agree on the reasons why the district they’re fighting to represent has been so hit so hard by the pandemic. They also largely agree that the response needs to include measures that address structural inequities that have led District 1 to being more impacted by the pandemic than other regions.

“We have been facing disparities in health, housing, for decades in this region,” Vargas said. “Unfortunately, as a health care advocate, this is not a surprise for me.”

Both candidates agreed that outreach to Latinos in the district was lacking at the outset of the pandemic, which exacerbated its impact. Hueso and Vargas both indicated that the county should expand testing sites and hours, especially in District 1, which initially had less testing available than other communities, like La Jolla. And both emphasized that the county needs to do far more to address the chronic inequities that led to District 1 being hit so hard.

“Coronavirus didn’t create these socioeconomic inequities; it has just made them worse,” Hueso wrote in an email. “District 1 has some of the lowest-income communities in the county, where many residents don’t have access to health care or proper nutrition, and are more likely to have pre-existing conditions – all of this is a recipe for disaster with this illness.”

Delayed Outreach

Advocates and service providers attributed a lack of outreach to the Latino community in the early stages of the pandemic to ensure they had information about the virus, how it could spread and what assistance may be available to them as part of the reason the community was hit so hard.

Hueso and Vargas agree.

“There was a void at the outset,” Vargas said. “The reality is the county was not prepared, but I’m not sure anyone would’ve been prepared.”

Hueso was also sympathetic to county health departments across the state.

“Early on, the problem was that data showing who was infected wasn’t reflective of the actual numbers of infected people,” Hueso wrote in an email. “The other issue is the lack of a uniform way to count race and ethnicity. Hospitals count differently and the option for ‘Latinos’ may not have been an option. Simultaneously, local governments were inundated with problems caused by the pandemic and they were struggling to get control.”

Hueso said that the county needs more staff in order to reach all the residents who were eligible for government assistance.

“When the numbers of infected people are underestimated and there’s a lack of sufficient staff to take advantage of programs, the federal government can’t respond with resources and this means less funding, less supplies, and less testing, further complicating the situation,” Hueso wrote.

Vargas said that the lack of outreach and access to social services was indicative of broader, long-term issues that the county has had in engaging with District 1 residents, particularly Latinos, and ensuring everyone eligible for government benefits can access them.

“If you think about the fact that we have been leaving money on the table for decades when it comes to things like CalFresh and CalWorks – and we continue to hear that people aren’t applying for them – it’s clear that there’s been a disconnect with the government for some time,” she said.

Hueso said, if elected, he would invest in an education and awareness campaign by working with Spanish media outlets and local nonprofits to get the word out about available resources, like testing sites, free or affordable health care and ensuring workers know their rights if they get sick on the job.

Vargas said she’s already been working with advocates and service providers on the ground to provide bilingual COVID information, including interviews with county officials, through a Facebook platform called Conexiones.

“My response to the pandemic was to bring people together – the voices in the community that have been on the frontlines for decades,” she said.

An Economic – and Equitable – Recovery

A priority for both candidates will be helping the region recover economically.

“When I talk about recovery, I keep saying that we have to re-imagine a San Diego that serves all of us that addresses all the disparities that existed,” Vargas said. “One of my strengths is I bring people together and form action coalitions that can address some of these needs, and make sure the county is looking at an economic recovery plan that is broader.”

For Vargas, that means ensuring people have their basic needs met, like not having to experience food insecurity. Vargas proposes partnering with schools, which already have the access and trust of many families, to help provide wraparound services. She also believes the county could provide additional cash assistance for families to spend on things like food, especially after additional federal and state dollars that have gone toward food assistance and unemployment during the pandemic are no longer available.

“We have the resources to be able to do that,” Vargas said. “If we’re going to have an economic recovery program, it has to make it easy to access.”

Hueso also said the county needs to invest more resources in providing preventative health care, public health education and nutrition services in historically underserved areas, like parts of District 1.

Hueso said he wants to form an economic recovery task force at the county, if elected, made up of local businesses and other stakeholders to identify a comprehensive plan for how the county can help them recover. The county approved around $17 million in grants for businesses, Hueso said. He wants to increase that number and give preference to businesses that hire and serve people in disadvantaged communities.

“We need San Diego to return to the thriving economic engine it was just five months ago and I’m confident we can do that with the right plan in place,” Hueso said.

Hueso and Vargas also said the region’s housing needs are more dire than ever.

“We know the rents are too high in San Diego,” Vargas said. “We also know landlords are struggling to pay mortgages.”

Vargas said the county needs to ensure the federal and state governments do their part on workforce housing and that the county can also get creative with the business community to help find solutions. She also said that the county needs to ensure people eligible for rental assistance program know the assistance is available and how to get it.

“We know there were people who were living in their cars before the pandemic,” Vargas said. “These are things we can do at the county.”

The pandemic has underscored how many frontline, essential workers live in the district – and how many of them have to take public transportation outside of the district to work, Hueso said.

“We need to focus on ways to make jobs closer to where people live,” Hueso said. “This lower socioeconomic status means residents are more likely to be priced out of the housing market, as well.”

Hueso said the county should look at streamlining its development process, creating more incentives to build affordable housing and significantly increase funding for rental assistance. He also said he would help the region take advantage of Promise and Opportunity Zones, which create tax incentives to invest in low-income communities, that will help attract long-term investment in South Bay.

“These incentives are highly underutilized and have the potential to unleash a series of opportunities in distressed communities, revitalizing the economy, creating jobs, affordable housing, and healthier neighborhoods,” he said.

Maya was Voice of San Diego’s Associate Editor of Civic Education. She reported on marginalized communities in San Diego and oversees Voice’s explanatory...

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