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Op-Ed: In the Omicron surge, I am my family’s anger translator

A man faces a COVID test site sign
A COVID test site in Echo Park in November.
(Genara Molina / Los Angeles Times)

My 88-year-old Latina mother, triple vaxxed and a diligent mask wearer, is struggling with COVID.

Two weeks ago, I sat outside her apartment in my camping chair as her blood pressure plunged 40 points in one day, her heart rate dropped to 50, and her hacking cough prevented her from getting any sleep. We couldn’t get her in for treatment in an emergency room, nor could we access any of the antiviral drugs or monoclonal antibody treatments we’ve heard so much about. I couldn’t even get a her a telemedicine appointment with a doctor — any doctor — for three days.

And my mom is one of the fortunate who has full medical coverage through Kaiser Permanente, but that’s not enough when the healthcare system is under siege to the point that the governor calls in the National Guard to help. It took eight hours just to get a call back from a nurse to learn whether she could be seen in the ER.

This, it seems, is what “learning to live with COVID” looks like. As she struggles with COVID infection and my extended family grapples with COVID confusion, I am their anger translator.

After two years, hospitals thought they had a handle on treating COVID-19. But Omicron has hit them harder than ever.

Like many bilingual kids who grew up in an immigrant family, I’ve often served as a translator for my parents and extended family, some of whom only have basic fluency in English.

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But translating isn’t just about language. It is also about being able to wield enough cultural capital and knowhow to ask — even challenge — the powers that be to get what your family needs, including life-saving medical care. Now it’s about saying out loud the frustrations and fury of what a still-surging pandemic is asking of us.

The original anger translator was a character developed by the comedian Keegan-Michael Key during President Obama’s presidency. “Luther” could express the thoughts the mild-mannered president could not or would not articulate in public.

And likewise, here I am, anger translator for my family.

We know that vaccination rates are lower in Latinx communities, despite educational outreach programs targeting us. Some of the unvaccinated are intentionally so (or, as The Times’ Gustavo Arellano calls them, pandejos). But based on what I’ve observed, the outreach programs aren’t addressing the structural inequalities that keep so many Latinx people from getting healthcare.

As the coronavirus raged on, many Latinos scoffed at the pandemic — until it’s too late.

Most of my elderly family members don’t have computers, smartphones or even a cellphone. How are they supposed to sign up for a COVID test online? When my brother tried to get a test appointment, he was told he could only do so through an app. Without such technological savvy, he woke up before dawn to wait in line, despite working a night shift.

I gave my family members N95 masks to help curb the spread of Omicron. “Where did you get these so that we can get more?” asked my nina, my godmother. I had researched the best masks online, and I got them through an online retailer. How was this 81-year-old aunt of mine, who has never ordered anything on the internet, supposed to navigate that? “I’ll get them for you,” I told her.

We know that Latinos have been getting COVID at extremely high rates, due in part to our disproportionate work in the service sector. And here again, confusion reigns. Another (fully vaxxed, mask-wearing) relative tested positive and turned to me for answers: “When can I go back to work? Do I have to test?”

I shared with him the CDC’s rules, based on the latest news coverage. Then I texted him again. And again. And again, as the guidance continued to change: You can go back in 5 days if you test negative. Day 0 is the day you get your results. No wait, day 0 is the day you tested. Never mind, you don’t need to test negative before going back.

We are vaxxed. We wear masks. We try to follow the guidelines. And still I’m sitting in a camp chair in Echo Park listening to my mother cough through the door, knowing that we are on our own.

As the Omicron variant infects record numbers of people, many in Southern California say they are no longer willing to hide from a virus that has already killed 800,000 Americans.

None of us will get past the pandemic until we have universal access to tests, PPE and healthcare as well as clear guidance from health officials that we can understand and actually follow.

People keep telling me, “Well it looks like the booster kept your mom out of the hospital. It did what it’s supposed to do!” Yes, that’s true, gracias a dios.

But I don’t think enough people realize what the “new normal” is. It doesn’t just mean wearing a mask when you go out or maybe getting a touch of flu. It means you’ll be providing healthcare at home as the actual healthcare system breaks.

Natalia Molina is a professor of American studies and ethnicity at USC and author of “Fit to be Citizens?: Public Health and Race in Los Angeles, 1879-1939" and the forthcoming “A Place at the Nayarit: How a Mexican Restaurant Nourished a Community.”


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