Op-Ed: In the Omicron wave, I’m my family’s anger translator

My 88-year-old Latina mother, triple adult and a diligent mask wearer, struggles with COVID.

Two weeks ago, I was sitting outside her apartment in my camping chair when her blood pressure dropped by 40 points in one day, her heart rate dropped to 50, and her hacking cough prevented her from sleeping. We could not get her in for treatment in the emergency room, and we could not access any of them antiviral drugs or monoclonal antibody treatments we have heard so much about. I could not even get a her a telemedicine appointment with a doctor – any doctor – for three days.

And my mother is one of the lucky ones to have full medical coverage through Kaiser Permanente, but that’s not enough when the health care system is under siege to the point that the governor calls National guard to help. It took eight hours just to get a call back from a nurse to hear if she could be seen in the emergency room.

This is how it seems to “learn to live with COVID”. While she struggles with COVID infection and my extended family struggles with COVID confusion, I am their anger translator.

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

But translation is not just about language. It’s also about being able to use enough cultural capital and know-how to question – 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 anger over what an ever-surging pandemic is asking us to do.

The original anger translator was a character developed by comedian Keegan-Michael Key during President Obama’s presidency. “Luther” could express the thoughts the gentle president could not or would not formulate themselves publicly.

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

We know that vaccination rates are lower in Latinx communities despite educational programs targeted at us. Some of the unvaccinated are on purpose (or, as The Times’ Gustavo Arellano calls them, pandejos). But based on what I have observed, the outreach programs do not address the structural inequalities that deter so many Latin people from receiving health care.

Most of my older family members do not have computers, smartphones or even a cell phone. How do they sign up for a COVID test online? When my brother tried to get a trial period, he was told he could only do it via an app. Without such technological savvy, he woke up before dawn to stand in line, despite working night shifts.

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

We know that Latinos have received COVID in extremely high rates, in part because of our disproportionate work in the service sector. And here the confusion reigns again. Another (fully waxed, mask-wearing) relative was tested positive and approached me for answers: “When can I go back to work? Should I test?”

I shared the CDC’s rules with him, based on the latest news coverage. Then I wrote to him again. And again. And again, as the guide 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. It does not matter, you do not have to test negative before you go back.

We are vaxxed. We wear masks. We try to follow the guidelines. And still I sit in a camp chair in Echo Park listening to my mother cough through the door, knowing we are alone.

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

People keep telling me, “It looks like the booster kept your mom out of the hospital. It did what it was supposed to!” Yes it is true, Thank god.

But I do not think enough people are aware of what the “new normal” is. It does not only mean that you have to wear a mask when you go out or maybe get a touch of flu. This means that you provide health care at home as the actual health care system breaks down.

Natalia Molina is 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 upcoming “A Place at the Nayarit: How a Mexican Restaurant Nourished a Community . “

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