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Part 2: Essential, Sick and Marginalized: Six essential Latinx workers tell their stories of falling ill to COVID-19

Part 2: Essential, Sick and Marginalized: Six essential Latinx workers tell their stories of falling ill to COVID-19

Prevention measures disproportionately have failed the Latinx community of San Francisco during the first months of the COVID-19 crisis. To be more specific, testing protocols failed the Latinx community. In the first part of this special report, a timeline of the outbreak and government response in San Francisco was covered that shows that COVID-19 containment efforts failed Latinx people disproportionately. The role of Latinx workers, both documented and undocumented, as essential laborers in the City was also discussed to document their overexposure to the virus, as well as their economic and social vulnerability in the face of the epidemic. According to City data published on June 9, Latinx people now represent nearly half of all cumulative COVID-19 confirmed cases in the City (49.1%), despite representing only 15 percent of the population of the City. In a week, since Part 1 of this report was published, this percentage jumped 2 percent points. COVID-19 cases have been steadily increasing in the Latinx community, even as the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases slow down and testing rates go up

In the first part of this special report, a timeline of the outbreak and government response in San Francisco was covered to explain why containment efforts still left Latinx people disproportionately exposed to COVID-19. The role of Latinx workers, both documented and undocumented, as essential laborers in the City was also discussed. 

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In this second part, we hear directly from six essential Latinx workers who contracted COVID-19 in San Francisco while on the job during the early lockdown phase about their experience seeking and accessing help when they were sick. Their word and wisdom as survivors of COVID-19 inspired this two part report, and led us to ask for answers.

Testing denied: Jeremias Yerbes Sanchez, 47 years old, tow truck driver 

Jeremías Yerbes, recovered, back on the job as a tow truck driver. Lilac Alley and 25th Street, Mission District, June 4, 2020. Photo: Adriana Camarena

Jeremías Yerbes Sanchez, 47, is a Mayan man from Akil, Yucatán. He arrived to San Francisco in 2003, and today works as a tow truck driver in the Bay Area. “I work as a subcontractor to a tow truck company.” Jeremias provides services for the City, car insurance companies, and whomever may have a need for towing. “Not too long ago, I bought my own equipment—four tow trucks—to start my own company,” he proudly says. 

“We continued working after the shelter-in-place order because we are part of essential services. I remember complaining to AAA because they continued to send us out to pick up clients and ride with them in the cabin when they had not taken any precautions to protect us. After one discussion I had with AAA, they started asking the clients screening questions about symptoms, but even then, clients would come coughing along.” 

Around mid-March, he was at a gas station, when he hailed a fellow tow truck driver, a Nicaraguan friend. “I made the mistake, due to the habit that one has, to lean into his window to talk with him face to face. Days later, I found out from another fellow tower at another gas station that my friend had been hospitalized for the virus. At that very moment, I went to put the truck away and stopped working. I already felt discomfort and thought to myself it makes no sense to infect other people. I stopped working on March 29, because I had been exposed.” 

“That night I felt a discomfort in my chest, from my shoulder to my arm, I felt as if someone held me tight and I couldn’t breathe. From my shoulder to my neck, I felt as if my blood was clogged or clotting in my veins, it was a pain that ran through the veins. I thought to myself that it was as if an animal had gotten into me. I felt strangled by the neck and little by little shortness of breath. Later I felt discomfort in the legs, in the lungs, a pain that bothered me a lot, which at times gave me a runny nose and then a cough, it came and went. Especially when the weather changed from hot to cold I felt that discomfort.” 

Seeing his symptoms and knowing that his friend was positive for COVID-19, Jeremías assumed he was also positive. “I thought to myself, I should be tested to protect the people I’m living with.” Jeremías lives in an apartment near Potrero Avenue and 25th Street with three more people: his partner, her son (who he loves as his own), and independent roommate. But in San Francisco, the test was not being carried out anywhere that Jeremías knew of.

On March 30, he saw a post on Facebook about a drive-by testing place in Hayward. He hopped into his tow truck in his uniform, “…so that they would see that I was an essential worker. I arrived and went to look at where the cars were entering, and a paramedic called me over to a table.” Jeremías told him about his on and off cough, and his fever the night before, but the medic considering his symptoms said, “I am very sorry but I cannot do the test because they are limited for the moment. I am very sorry.” 

“I got a little angry,” recalls Jeremías. “How is it possible that they say that essential people can be tested and that I am feeling these ills in my body that I’ve not felt before and I cannot be tested?”

The medic simply responded, “I’m so sorry we can’t do the test. The fact that I can test you will not make a difference whether you are positive or negative, because there is no cure, so it makes no difference. I recommend you go home and quarantine. If you have more symptoms go to the doctor.” 

During the dawn of April 3, Jeremías woke up bathed in sweat. “I was delirious from the fever, and soaked through as if I had thrown myself into a pool. In the dream, I felt bugs being taken out of my body. Strange things were happening to me. That day I woke up and felt a scab on my lips, I touched it and I saw my hand turn red. I felt a little ball on my tongue and I touched it and looked at my hand and saw it was a ball of blood. I stood up like a bullet and looked in the mirror at my mouth full of blood. I washed my mouth. My ribs felt like I had been beaten to death. In my mind that night something had told me ‘you have the coronavirus.’ It made me try to get tested again. I also was with my family, I was not isolated.”

On April 3, Jeremías drove to Fremont where once again on Facebook he had seen that a new testing site had opened that did not require a doctor’s order. “There I arrived with glassy eyes. When I was attended, I had a fever, I was bathed in sweat. In the drive-by testing, I was given the nose and throat test. The next day, on April 4, they called me to give me my results, but they called asking for another man. I am not that person. Later, on April 6 they left me a message to tell me that the tests were negative.” Jeremías feels that his test results were mixed up, since they called immediately the next day but asking for the wrong person. “I felt so confused.” 

And I could only imagine how similarly confused an asymptomatic man somewhere in the Bay Area felt when he was told he had COVID-19.

In the following weeks, Jeremías continued to feel ill with a worsening cough. “I told my partner, ‘this is really trying me.’ Since we are Christian, she would tell me, “You are healthy. Trust in God.” 

Jeremías resorted to faith and home remedies. “I did a lot of the misting. A steam bath of eucalyptus, mullein, purple onion, and herbs that my sister sent me from Mexico. That helped me a lot.” He would drink lemon tea with baking soda, and ate two or three oranges a day for the vitamin C. But it was the steam baths that helped the most. “The first day I did it, I felt that something was blown in my nose, a turning point.” His wife also felt some of the discomforts of the illness, but these simple home remedies saw her through. Their 13 year old son refused to take any of these.

Towards late April, Jeremías learned of the Unidos en Salud testing. On Sunday April 26, he arrived weak and trembling to the Harrison Street site near his home. Two tests were taken: one for active COVID-19 and the other for antibodies to determine if a person had already had the virus. “They did the nose test but they had trouble drawing blood for the antibody test. They kept telling me, ‘your hand is very cold.’” It was, of course, Jeremías luck that they called him the next day saying that there was an error in his test, pleading he come back on the 28th, the last day of testing. He returned for a redo of the nose and throat swab test, and then he waited. Anxiously he called the clinic several times to see if results were in over the following days; no longer trusting the process. Finally, days later, he received his results: negative. But it is also possible that at that point in his recovery, he would not have been shedding the virus. 

Now Jeremias waits for his antigen test, hoping for no more mistakes in the results.

With the worst of the illness in the rearview mirror, Jeremías meditates on his experience. “This thing can be fatal or not. I had epileptic attacks as a child, and heard that people with pre-existing conditions fared worse. I was in a panic the entire time, thinking perhaps I’ll go quickly. I really didn’t want to die. I have been here for 16 years, and have not had an opportunity to go back and see my mother and family. I kept asking God to give me a license to live. I asked God for that opportunity…I did want to continue living, but signed the titles of the tow trucks to my wife just in case. I work to make my mind strong, but there are people with weak minds and I can see how this could kill you.” 

He is grateful to the volunteers and medics carrying out the testing. “If the state has money, it should go especially to those people who are exposing themselves giving services. Doctors deserve the highest recognition for dedicating themselves to saving us and they are dying too.”

Jeremías Yerbes, recovered, back on the job as a tow truck driver. Lilac Alley and 25th Street, Mission District, June 4, 2020. Photo: Adriana Camarena

After his illness, Jeremías is financially in the red. “After a month and a half without working, all my savings are gone. We have food, because my brother and other people have given us pantry boxes…The bills are coming, and I have not paid the rent because the owner of the building is a pastor. The bills are bills and will have to be paid in the future. As I own my tow trucks and work 24 hours, I will recover sooner than others. Right now I’m going to see a friend who is going to lend me $5,000 to pay the insurance on the tow trucks so I can start driving again…I paid my driver until April 15, but after that he too had to apply to government programs.” 

Jeremías thanks God he has a legal status under a U visa now, and after applying several times, received his stimulus check and a $1,000 small business check. With his stimulus money, Jeremías completed the registration of his company Norcal Supreme Towing. “If someone needs to move their car due to their illness, just let me know so I can protect myself, but I can help them so that they do not lose their car. Or a person who lost a relative, I also help them. God always provides if someone needs. God gave me the license to see my mother again, God has the last word when we leave and when we stay.

“I was undocumented for many years, and I know that if you don’t work, you don’t eat. They are essential workers without any protection and how can they avoid getting infected. It hurt me a lot to know [through the Unidos en Salud study] that 95 percent of us Latinos are affected and it was then that I understood how important it was to tell my story.”

A testing window mystery: Esperanza Novelo, 34 years old, restaurant worker

Self-portrait of Esperanza Novelo and her two year old son, quarantined at home. Photo: Esperanza Novelo

Esperanza Novelo is a 34 year old Mayan woman from Yucatán. She arrived to San Francisco 13 years ago in February 2007. Her daughter was born in June 2008, and soon after, Esperanza began working, prepping and cooking, in restaurants catering to American food like pizzas and hamburgers. Today she lives with her husband, her 12 year old daughter, two year old son and older brother in an apartment near Bryant and 25th streets. 

Esperanza was aware of the Coronavirus, watching like the rest of us, the daily news unfold, but as far as she had heard the virus hadn’t spread into the City of San Francisco at the start of March. “I already knew about all that, when at the start of March I had a very strong cough and three days of fever. I couldn’t breathe. My chest hurt from breathing. I couldn’t speak. I lost my voice. We all had a fever at home, all the symptoms…On March 13, my boss sent me off to take the test the first time at General Hospital, but they didn’t give me the test because they said ‘You have symptoms of a normal flu.’ They were only giving tests to those who were very ill or those who had travelled to China. Maybe you had to be dying to be able to take the test at that time…” Barely able to speak from the soreness in her throat, she was sent home with cough syrup.

Her boss, wisely, asked her to stay home for two weeks. Then the lockdown started, and Esperanza was out of work until April 23 when she was called back in. “I no longer had any symptoms.”

Back at work, Esperanza was talking to her work colleagues, who told her that a former restaurant worker friend of theirs had tested positive for COVID-19. “It scared me because a week before I had talked with that young man.” 

On April 27 Esperanza returned to the hospital to get tested. “Based on the fact that I had contact with him, they agreed to test me. They then called me to say the test was negative. The next day, the 28th, my brother went to get the test and on the 29th  they told him he had tested positive. They asked him for all our information and asked we all take the test again. My husband took the test on the 29th and he also tested positive. They isolated themselves in a room. I made an appointment for the two children. On May 1, I went with my children, and on May 3 my older girl tested positive, and the boy negative. Two negatives and two positives in my home. The men were offered a hotel room, but we couldn’t isolate the girl alone, so we stayed together. 

Esperanza´s husband, brother and daughter tested positive for Covid-19, and needed to keep quarantine protocols separate from Esperanza and her son who tested negative. Photo: Esperanza Novelo

“The Health Department supported us with things to clean the house, how to take care of each other, face masks to wear at home, always washing our hands, so that the negatives did not come out positive. Too much hygiene at home! Later the Health Department started dropping off food every two days that we could just heat in the microwave, and that helped us. The food they give us is good meat, rice… But in that period of time we did not go out at all. They called us every three days. May 15 was the last day of their isolation, because none of them presented any symptoms. The doctor says we are now in the clear. They have been healthy.”

Esperanza and I talked about the psychological impact of being quarantined knowing your family has COVID-19. “When we found out that one of us was positive, we felt great despair. We saw on the television that this could be very serious, that it could kill many people…We did not know what to do. We did not know. We were very afraid of discrimination, but for me there is no problem talking about this now in order to give more information to people who are experiencing or may experience this disease. It was very different from what others think. You can get support.

“I miss the whole city, the normal life that one can lead, the places to go out to de-stress, work, open schools. It can be depressing just being at home and at home.” Esperanza warded off negative thoughts the best she could. “There have been times when I have felt a lot of depression, for being at home, for not having a job, but we have had the support of friends and family, raising us up with good words.”

Esperanza is also haunted by the riddle of her negative test. “I still wonder because I was the one who had all the symptoms back in March but turned out negative. We suspect that when we had that strong fever and cough, well it comes to mind, that perhaps… I am confused. The problem is that now you cannot cough without thinking you have the virus. I did more research, and I asked the doctor why they tested positive, and I and the boy negative. The doctors say there are some who have a strong immune system, others naturally immune, others are asymptomatic like my husband. It’s very strange. That’s the information I was given.” 

I also can’t help thinking that Esperanza missed the testing window of opportunity in early March. It is possible that her husband, brother and daughter simply continued to shed the virus until the end of April, which is why they tested positive but were asymptomatic during their quarantine. It’s a mystery. Unless Esperanza has access to an antibody test, she’ll never know.

At the end of March, after their quarantine was over, her employer asked her to take the active COVID-19 test again as a requirement to return to work, but the Department of Public Health explained to both of them that it was not necessary since she had tested negative and shown no symptoms. Last week, Esperanza finally went back to work, which was a relief. Since April 30 she had had no work, and her husband has also been out of work since the shelter-in-place order was given because his restaurant closed down completely. Her brother lost his income when he had to quarantine.

“We are very worried about the rent because we had to use all our savings to pay through this month and also other bills.” Esperanza will have to apply for food stamps. “Having no income is very difficult. We have paid three months rents with our savings. That does not cover gas, telephone or other expenses. Almost $4,000 in savings have been lost in the time that we have not worked. If the City could help with something specific it would be ‘Help with the rent.’ Once we go back to working, we will have to start over, but at the same time, we’ll be less worried about money. We do not qualify for the stimulus money that the government is giving. We are migrants. 

Esperanza Novelo. Photo: Adriana Camarena

“Another thing,” says Esperanza, “before all this, we had declared our taxes and expected to receive $3,000 back by now. We were counting on that money, but I don’t know if the government has paid the stimulus payments out of the tax returns, because we have not received anything back.”

Esperanza applied to whatever relief fund was sent her way. Recently, the family saw a trickle of income: $500 from the Mission Asset Fund Coronavirus Rapid Response and $1,000 from Undocufund SF. Esperanza also tried to contact Catholic Charities to access the California State relief fund for migrants but gave up after incessantly trying to get through on the phone lines.

I ask Esperanza what she would say to people who are worried about getting tested for fear of getting a positive result. “I would say that the psychological damage of not knowing is more serious, because most of us will not be touched by the most severe cases. And be very careful because there are many people who do not keep the necessary hygiene. The disease does exist and not all of us will have the blessing of a mild case. Be better informed. Let there be no discrimination among us. Do not put anyone aside who is ill. Support them, whomever it is.

“To those who know they are infected, do not be irresponsible, tell the truth, to save others. People can be too selfish. The virus can be prevented by staying at home. Do not be shy about talking about the illness. Many people have kept quiet because of the misinformation that exists, which is why there is discrimination. This should not be.”

As she re-enters the work world, Esperanza reflects on the virus. “I have a friend who says this disease is racist because it does not catch everyone. Only the ones who have to go out to work. I feel like the disease is on the corner waiting for the prey to come out. We who had to work were the ones who exposed ourselves the most. It would be better to shelter at home, since we don’t know who and who does not have the virus, who will be severely affected and who will not…”

Esperanza has heard that the virus is mutating, and it is unknowable whether you can become ill with it again. “We need to stay informed and practice health measures to stay safe.” Back in her home town, the Mayan people are so afraid of the virus that they near want to burn those suspected of having COVID-19. “I explain things to my mother, so that they are not misinformed.”

Saved by love and the COVID-19 Intensive Care Unit: Lucio Ku, 35 years old, restaurant caterer

Lucio takes a photo of his arm on the fifth day of battling the illness in the ICU.

Lucio Ku was raised in Saczquil in the Municipality of Jose Maria Morelos in Quintana Roo, near the border with Yucatan. He is a Mayan man, 35 years old, who arrived to San Francisco 11 years ago on August 12. He lives in the Tenderloin.

“Like everyone, I started out working as a dishwasher. I also went to English classes for two years. Learning the language allowed me to learn more in the kitchen: salad bowls, pizza maker, sandwich maker, waiter, sous chef, chef…”

“When all of this befell me, I was working as a cook commuting on BART from San Francisco to Concord. I work for a company that fills in positions. They send out messages about positions and then we cover that shift. I’ve taken many shifts in San Francisco, Berkley, Concord, and in Napa, during the high season, when people are getting married. Here and there, they send us to cover the events. But at that time it was a Concord shift. …When someone fails to show up, we are there to cover them, and somehow or other one is exposed….” He feels he caught the virus on his commute.

Lucio Ku takes a self-portrait during his recovery at St. Francis Hospital.

Lucio remembers his last job well, a four-day shift that ended on March 24. “Coming back from Concord on BART that last day, I felt a scratch in my throat. My birthday is on the 25th and my roommates made me a meal at home that night. The next day, I woke up with sore muscles. I had trouble walking, and my throat bothered me a lot…. Since before my birthday I felt that scratch in my throat, but I did not give it importance. I had tea and it went away, but the day after my birthday, I could not even walk, all the strength had left me.

“On the 26th, I was at home thinking I had a simple flu. On the 27th I had stomach problems, headaches, cough, but I still had no difficulty breathing…On the 29th I started having difficulties breathing…. I did not suspect the virus. But I decided to go to the hospital to see what was happening to me around 2 pm that day. I had a 103 temperature, and they took me in right away. I was given intravenous fluids, and they lowered my temperature. I was discharged at 9 pm, but due to my temperature, they sent me to a hotel by ambulance to quarantine. I recently got a bill of $4,148.00 for that hospital visit and the ambulance.” [Healthy SF, Medi-cal covers]

I ask Lucio how much he makes. “$18 an hour, but sometimes I work all week, and sometimes not. In February I had no work. In March, I had those four days of work. When this happened, I only had $1,000 in savings.”

Lucio Ku receives an astonishing high bill for having been forced to take an ambulance from the hospital to the quarantine hotel.

“On the 29th that they discharged me from the hotel, they gave me the test and the next day they called to tell me that I was positive. ‘You have the COVID.’ They asked me a lot of psychological questions. ‘Have you ever tried to take your life?’ perhaps because there are people who despair. It was, I think, to protect me. ‘No I never have,’ I answered.”

That night at the hotel Lucio’s fever worsened. “And on the 31st, I felt even worse. Too much coughing, I had a fever, and my phlegm was blood … I had to call them that afternoon to ask them questions about it. They asked me, ‘What percentage is blood?’ ‘It is pure blood,’ I answered. The nurse called the doctor, and called me back, ‘Get ready. They’re going to get you in 15 minutes to bring you back to the hospital.’“

“I was in bad shape, I could no longer breathe. Count 1, 2, 3, that is all I could breathe. Every three seconds my breath would cut off. I felt desperation. When I arrived at the hospital they put me on oxygen and took blood. They took tests. They told me I was being taken into intensive care, and I needed someone to make decisions for me.

There were two types of drugs that they were testing. It was almost like they were waiting to see who said yes, but these drugs had kidney and liver side effects. I said no. What use was it to be cured if I was going to be sick of another thing? I gave them my brother’s number, we talked, I said no again.

The doctors explained that I had five days to make it out of the intensive care unit. If my lungs didn’t hold up by then, then they would intubate me. I know that it hurts, and that just as it can help you, it can kill you. Thank God I made it out. My lungs started working, they resisted. Five days later, I was breathing better. Every day that I was in the ICU, they would come in to inject me in the stomach with anticoagulant agents that helped to avoid clots. Night and day they kept me on oxygen, monitoring my heart beat, I was full of cables.”

Soon after, Lucio was transferred out of the ICU and to acute care for another five days, and from there sent to recover at St. Francis Hospital on Hyde Street. “I was there for 10 days… Recovering, recovering…. They made me do exercises with my lungs, 12 times every hour, to see how much my lungs could breathe in, with this my lungs could improve. There they did the COVID test and it still came out positive.”

The doctors then insisted on giving Lucio a tuberculosis test because of the blood he kept coughing up. He insisted that was impossible. “I held on that I did not have tuberculosis, that I did not have it. They gave me two injections, waiting for my skin to puff up, but I was sure that I did not have it. They did it to me again, and finally the doctor told me the test came out negative. It was also finally negative for COVID-19. ‘In two or three days we will discharge you. We will send you home or to the hotel where they take care of people’ the doctor told me.”

Lucio also talked about the psychological impact of the disease. “When I was in hospital, all I wanted was to get out. It is maddening. It is very ugly if one is not mentally prepared. You think many things. Many people, for fear that they will not make it out, give up. You know, if you tell the body that your body is not going to make it, your defenses drop and that is when you fall. … The fever made me hallucinate that I was already dead. I dreamed that I had already been taken to Mexico in a box. I was at my own funeral. I saw my mom, my brothers, crying for me. It made me crazy, I didn’t know what I was thinking. The only thing I knew is that I had to live.”

Lucio had someone to live for. “I have an 11-year-old girl that I have to meet. I have to live to go see her. She lives with her mother in Mexico. When they told me I was sick, I spoke to her mother to tell her that I didn’t know if I was going to get out of this. She said, ‘You have to make it out. Your daughter always asks for you.’ Before, I used to send voice messages on WhatsApp, but then I was sick and I couldn’t. The girl kept sending me messages, even when I couldn’t send messages back. Oh, it was very nice to hear that voice, you can’t imagine how much. I believe that girl saved me, even if she did not know me in person, she calls me ‘daddy,’ calls me ‘my daddy,’ she is very attached to me. That was what gave me the most strength, I couldn’t leave them like that.”

Mother and daughter live in Campeche with her grandparents. “When I came here, her mother was four months pregnant. Necessity makes one move. You want to have a house, things that one cannot achieve there even if one works like a madman. I even have plans to go there already. I have been here for some time, and after what happened to me, I think I’ll wait just a little more, work, save a little, and then go there. I want to work a little more and then leave.”

Lucio Ku exits the St. Francis Hospital after a month of being severely ill with COVID-19.

After Lucio left the hospital, he decided to finish his recovery at his brother’s home in Pittsburgh. His roommates in the Tenderloin had tested negative for the illness, but his lungs were still weak from the sickness and the risk of catching COVID-19 or any other illness was too risky. The doctor encouraged him telling him that if he did catch the virus again it would not be as bad as this time. “He told me, ‘We did not give you any medicine. The virus would deplete your glucose and sodium levels and we would supplement those. Your body struggled with the virus alone, and won. You would only get simple cough or flu.’ At times, Lucio even feels grateful that he’s had the virus and done. Lucio takes his vitamin C and omega 3 to strengthen his lungs. 

Lucio is very grateful to the medical team at the hospital, but does have one minor point of curiosity. “When they took me down to the ICU, I had my pants, shoes, wallet, everything. When I was moved, my things were left behind and then lost, even the day after I asked for them. I lost my consular ID card, about $50 in my wallet, and my shoes. Perhaps they threw away my things thinking I wasn’t going to get out of intensive care.” 

Lucio Ku, unemployed caterer and cook, recovered after being hospitalized in the ICU for COVID-19, Alabama and 19th Streets, Mission District, June 4, 2020. Photo: Adriana Camarena

He is strong enough now to return to work. “Work, I can work, but there is no work, there is nowhere to go hustle.” I think about Lucio’s job which is dependent on congregating people around a meal or a party.

A few weeks ago, Lucio stopped by his apartment to pick up some papers. “I looked about and saw many people, many countrymen, who do not protect themselves. There are many people who do not pay attention and it would be good if they read this newspaper and listen to my story. I went through this to tell them to take care of themselves. It does not feel good to get sick and less of something that you can die from. People need to understand that this is serious. We are the ones who lived to tell. The others, I don’t know where the others ended up.”

Fighting paranoia with reliable information: Q., 33 years of age, restaurant worker

Q., 33 years of age, is a Mayan man from Akil, Yucatán. He arrived six months ago to San Francisco, and immediately found work as a prep cook and dishwasher at restaurants on Gerry Street and Mission Street. He requested that his name not be published in this report.

On May 2, rumors ran that someone in the SRO hotel where he lives on Mission Street tested positive for COVID-19. The building owner reached out to the DPH and asked that everyone in the building be tested. Two days later social workers called him and his three other roommates to let them know that they had tested positive for COVID-19. “They told us over the phone and we didn’t know if these results were real or not real. We all had a cough, but we just didn’t know.” 

Social workers visited them later that day, May 4, and gave them their options. “We had never had an experience like this … Since we did not have a private bathroom to contain the spread of the virus, they gave us the option to move to a shelter or a hotel that the city offered and see how our symptoms developed.

“Honestly we were uncertain: go to an open shelter to live with others or be locked in a hotel. The truth was we were in fear, we did not know what was going to happen, we had seen reports of how the virus was unfolding in New York. We felt panic that everything was going to go wrong. We were in uncertainty. We saw the complications in the organisms of other people and we panicked. We were also in an unfavorable situation as Latinos, myself just arrived with greater fear. We did not know what awaited us.

“Once we learned that we would have medical assistance, and knowing that the virus could create respiratory tract complications, we asked to go to the hotel. In the hotel we asked to be placed two to a room. Since we already lived together it was not so much of a problem. We kept in contact with each other by phone.

“Every day a nurse called us to ask about our symptoms. In this case we only had a cough. We were given pills and syrup for our sore throat and itchy nose, and ginger tea.

“This illness can be psychologically wearing because of everything one sees on TV, so paranoia sets in as you wonder whether you will be hit better or worse. You have to control your mind.” Q. and his roommate took on the task of informing themselves. “We looked for scientific articles on the coronavirus’ mechanism of action and how it manifests itself. We informed ourselves with articles supported by evidence, none of those YouTubers. For people who may need something more easy to digest I recommend CurieScience on Facebook.”

When we talked, Q. was on his 11th day of quarantine. “Our symptoms have diminished. We had a cough with phlegm, but it dissipated with the cough syrups and teas. Every organism is different. People may have different disorders and the illness can complicate matters. It all depends.”

I notice Q. speaks like a doctor. “We have a background: In Mexico, I worked in a scientific laboratory and that is what shaped my mind. I was a biochemical engineer in Mérida.” Q. came to San Francisco to build a future. “My work was not well paid.” He has a wife back home, and he came here to build a patrimony for his family, and build a house. “Let’s hope I can make it happen…”

During the days of quarantine, they were fed balanced meals with vegetables, protein and vitamins. “All one needs to survive.” Q and his roommate took care of their mental health by watching television, listening to music, reading books online, and conversing. I asked if there is something he would suggest to the City to improve upon. “Yes, television with Spanish channels, Netflix, but more than that would likely be impossible.”

Q. was looking forward to the day that they are given a clean bill of health. That day, May 15, the doctor was going to evaluate them, and if they continued three more days without symptoms, they would be released. He was anxious to return to their room in the SRO hotel, since he had no idea what had become of his things. “I’m also going to look for work as soon as I’m being given the green light.” Right before he was quarantined, Q was working two jobs, eight hours each. “We who live day by day from our work will obviously have to go out to work and we will always be prone to reinfection.”

He takes a moment to reflect on the virus. “I don’t know how we caught it. We interact with many things and many people and this virus is everywhere. My advice to others is if you have a doubt and the opportunity to be tested, do so…. Your privacy will be highly respected. They do not question who you are. Take the necessary safety measures and do not fall into paranoia. Inform yourself correctly, do not read unsubstantiated things. Do not rely only on what you see on TV or what your neighbor is saying. My roommate and I were analyzing the news cycle. Every hour there is an insistence on the same and same. This is a delicate subject, and they should not be so alarmist. If they are going to repeat themselves, instead of saying 4,000 dead, 4,001 dead, 4,003 dead, 4,004 dead, instead of repeating those fatal numbers they should strike a balance: For example, of 1,000 infected, 500 died, but the rest recovered.

“Sheltering in place is fine, but we can’t be locked in all the time, and sooner or later everyone will get the virus that’s roaming about.” Q. plans on taking all the necessary precautions once he is out, such as facemasks with a good filter, because he cautions: “We also should not to be intoxicating ourselves with carbon dioxide, it is a dilemma. We need a study to have better conclusions about what is more useful and healthier. Or to what extent do we use the mask? For how long without being affected? Health authorities need to establish parameters for how long and what type of mask is most recommended, and if so, whether there is any accessible certified mask.

Q. also has another suggestion for the City to help essential workers who have recovered from COVID-19 to get back on their feet. “We are in complete uncertainty about employment and how to pay the rent. We do not expect things to be gifted to us, but opportunities should be extended to return to work in restaurants, warehouses and other places. Right now, all opportunities are closed to us, and it would be of great help to have a recruiting center for us Latinos who have language barriers. With help from an interpreter and someone who knows where there are resources, we can get back on our feet, especially those of us who have lost income because we suffered the disease.”

Working to death: Raul Chan, 28 years old, restaurant worker

Raúl Chan is a 28 year old Mayan man from the Yucatán. He arrived to San Francisco three years ago.

“Life here is hard. Here one has to work double to get what one wants. And you feel lonely being away from mom and family. When I got here, tears fell from my eyes from so much missing. With difficulty people understanding you, you want to communicate and you cannot even fill out work papers. There are good and bad people and some will help you. Over time one learns English for the basics. But life here is hard. I still cannot get used to it. One is raised differently, you come here and are seen differently. Sometimes I want to return to my town.

“I went into the kitchen when I arrived supported by families I knew. I had three jobs and worked about 15 hours a day for the first two and a half years. At that time I was working as a cook at night and a prep cook in the morning. And on my half-day break I was a butcher. 

“Eight months ago I became sick from not resting my body. I couldn’t even breathe, I couldn’t move my arm, I felt like I was dying. I didn’t go to the doctor, I didn’t know if I could go to the doctor. My friends told me I was ill from not resting my body. Dying far from home would be a suffering for my relatives. A friend who had someone die in the family told me how difficult it is to collect the money to send back remains. That time I felt so sick, I was so sorry I had come, thinking that I was going to die away from them. After that I kept only one job in order to rest. The owners of the place I left did not want to lose me because I was a very hard worker. They kept asking me who had hurt me, but it was simply that I had to rest. I started working as a cook with 10 hours shifts two days in the morning and two in the afternoon.

“A month ago, in mid-April, I felt a pain in my lung, but I thought it was normal pain. A very strong fever overtook me. It started at 8 pm and I thought it was normal. The next day at 8 am I felt better, but I was left with body pain as if I had been whacked. One of my lungs felt like it was tired, like it was not pulling in air. I thought the same thing as before was happening to me, but I was confused because I didn’t have the same routine.

 “I did not believe it was the coronavirus, as I had followed the indicated precautions. In the restaurant where I worked, they learned that a colleague had the virus. The owners tested everyone and I tested positive. We did the test at Harrison Street near 8th. The chef made an appointment for me and I went. 

“I was confident that I didn’t have it. One is young, one does not feel it. I come from a place where one is fed well, all natural. My antibodies were fine, said the doctor. But if I hadn’t taken care who knows how things would have gone.

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“I had to talk to our landlord who rents a room to another young man and me. I worried about everyone there. But since I had taken the necessary precautions, none of them came out positive in my home. Since I was the only one who tested positive, I made the decision to go to the hotel so as not to infect them.

“It was a hotel room at 601 Broadway… The second day I asked for water so as to not drink from the sink. They also gave me too little food. I am tall and the night came and I was hungry. They didn’t give me enough to eat, I was used to eating more. I have had problems with depression, and was used to exercising to combat depression. Locked up I kept exercising, which is why I was also hungry. You have nothing else to do. You don’t know what will happen to your body.

“I had no further symptoms, I did not feel ill, nor did I have fever. But locked in a room you think, ‘It’s fucked up, I want to get out already.’”

“Every day for the seven days I was in the hotel, they checked me for symptoms, but they didn’t apply another COVID test before they released me. I still don’t feel 100 percent. I go out for a walk and sometimes I feel that I am lacking oxygen and even more so with the face masks. I feel that that lung that bothered me is not yet fully recovered.

 “I have not returned to work. The bosses told me I couldn’t go back until I did the test again. I didn’t do it but it will soon. I am taking the opportunity to rest. I follow the precautions ordered by the doctor and I am taking care of myself. It is a deserved rest.

 “They called me from my other job but I didn’t want to say what had happened. I told him I had another job. I had not gone out to see them in consideration of them. Until I have my clean bill of health I will return to work.”

Raul is calm and collected throughout our talk. At the end, I ask him if he has recommendations for the rest of us.

 “Let’s all take care of each other because not everyone will have the same luck. What if the other person has another disease and because of one’s irresponsibility the other is infected. I did not believe in the coronavirus, until it affected me, and I saw that it was true. You have to follow the rules that the government sets, for good reason. I thought it was pure politics but it is true and it exists.

“I suggest not to watch TV, all the time watching the dead. To remove your thoughts from what is happening, take up something to read or something to pass the time. I turned off the TV, otherwise you are all the time thinking about what will happen to you.”

A well of gratitude: Elvin Escobar, 38 year old, tow truck driver

Elvin Escobar and his dog Kira pose for a photo on June 6, 2020. Photo: Shandana Qazi

Elvin Escobar is 38 years old, and originally from Santa Ana, El Salvador. He arrived in San Francisco 21 years ago, and for 20 years he has worked as a tow truck driver.

“This experience should not be wished upon one’s worst enemy. We Latinos have taken it as a game, more worried about seeing speculation in the media that it was caused by governments.”

“From the beginning of the shelter-in-place order I began to take precautions, since my work was essential. Work went down a lot but we continued to work with triple AAA and insurance companies. After the shelter-in-place order, we stopped giving customers a ride. I was wearing masks and gloves. In fact I bought many packages of mask and would give them away to anyone who did not have one. With disinfectants I cleaned my hands and tow truck. It did not cross the mind that this virus would get me.

“I do not wish my experience on anyone, not even my worst enemy. It is like a walk to the center of hell. There are chills, and a horrible fever. You can’t stand the pain, the fevers, all the symptoms.

“Suddenly the virus arrived, without any prior symptoms. On April 30, I left at 7 a.m. from San Francisco to Oakland to leave a car. When I was coming back, crossing the Bay Bridge, my vision blurred and I started having a fever that felt as if I had embers inside my body. It was sudden. The bone pain started and the fever started. It was horrible; a terrible bone pain.

“I managed to get to my house [over by Silver and Hamilton] and I spent three days holding on. I never thought it was the virus, but that it must be a flu or a passing fever. I was taking Dayquil, Nyquil, but those three days were horrible. I couldn’t stand bathing in cold water, but I would even put ice into the bath. A friend told me that I had to do the test.

“I went to 7th and Brannan, and the next day they called me by phone and text saying I tested positive. They asked for my symptoms: dizziness, diarrhea, fever and told me to head to the hospital. With the high fever, I arrived at the hospital on Thursday, May 7. A colleague came to my house and lifted my car with me inside. He dropped me off in front of the hospital, and returned to park my car at home. With weakness I entered the hospital, they took my temperature and I think it was over 100 degrees and they immediately gave me a hospital gown and a sheet and ice packs. And that’s when they put me on an IV drop. I passed out when I entered, so they gave me oxygen and took me up to the sixth floor. At the level of my navel, they injected antibiotics and anti-inflammatories and gave me tylenol every two hours. I was in the hospital for five days.

“Waking up in a hospital bed, I still had a super high fever after the first two days. I don’t even remember, but every four or six hours they placed more ice on me. On May 9 they finally stabilized me and lowered my fever. There came a moment that I even said that if it was God’s will to take away my suffering let it be so: the fever, the needles, so much weakness without eating, I lost 15-20 pounds, I lost my sense of taste, smell, everything, my sight was clouded. One day I felt death was near, after passing out three times when they were drawing blood and administering injections. I thought I was really dying. Horrible horrible all that I lived.

“I had a dry cough but not continuous, it came and went. I did not have pneumonia but the cough would require that I get oxygen for 10-15 minutes. They did an x-ray of my chest and showed it to me but I don’t know what they told me after so many antibiotics and anti-inflammatories. In my entire life I think it is the second or third time I have come to a hospital. Never before had I been in a hospital for more than two hours beyond a medical check-up. I have never had health complications.

“I have a 17 year old son who lives in Sacramento with his mom. I send him a weekly deposit. I spoke to him to say I cannot send your deposit because I am very sick with the Coronavirus. He got super sad, and cried on the phone. …No one could visit me. Visits were prohibited.”

Elvin resisted telling his family in El Salvador what was happening. “I am the youngest of nine, and my mother is nearly 90 years old. On Mother’s Day, May 10, I had turned off the cellphone, and it was the saddest thing not to be able to congratulate her. 

“I was sent home on May 11 at 7:30 pm by ambulance. I live with another co-worker and he also had COVID-19, but with different symptoms, only cough and flu, and without body aches. We fell ill around the same or a day apart. It’s hard to know who got hit first.

“When I felt better, I knew it was a second chance that God was giving me. I started living a new life. One stays with that thought. They are detestable thoughts of that illness.

“Back in the house, no one visited, but thank God and to all my friends everyone texted me, asking how they could help, if I needed anything, medicines, something to eat … everyone supported me. A soup, a chicken broth, minced meat, things to cook with, everything … I am super grateful to all the people who supported me. Many people encouraged me, prayed for me, ‘you are going to get out of this,’ there were written and audio messages giving encouragement. ‘”I can’t go see you, but I would like to bring you a pasta, a medicine…’

“I live in a second floor apartment, and I tied a pot and a hook to a rope that I sent down the window to receive gifts of tylenol, electrolyte drinks, soup…”

Elvin will scroll through his messages. “…And my heart breaks and it makes me sad and tears come out and I think that many people are living what I am and do not have someone to bring them medicine, food and words of encouragement, ‘praying for you,’ ‘I’m glad that you’re already eating,’ ‘that you are already back home’…”

One of those messages he received was a meme attributed to the daughter of the President of Banco Santander Portugal, remarking on the passing of her father to COVID-19, she said, “We are a millionaire family, but my father died alone and suffocated, looking for something that is free. The air. The money stayed at home.” Elvin was very moved by these words. “You have to give appreciation to material things, but what is worth more than your health, your friends, and if I used to work seven days a week before, now I should take time off, not be selfish with myself, not work 12 or 15 hours a day. I must value the opportunity that God is giving me. We have to focus on our own health and that of the people around us. I am super grateful to many people who encouraged and motivated me to overcome this disease. I am grateful to the doctors and nurses, whose hearts break just seeing us on one of those stretchers. To the social workers concerned whether we have food to eat.

“This virus comes with a depression, I suffered from depression being locked between four walls, a horrible depression, you don’t feel the time, one hour is 10 hours, suffering from loneliness, and at the same time, if I showed you all the images on my phone, I am in a prayer group, the video calls, I am super grateful, first with God and then with all my friends who surround me with their appreciation…”

Elvin has a 15 month old German Shepard, Kira, who he has had since and a pup and adores, but he feels that even she has suffered from depression during the lockdown, as she sits pensively for periods of time. 

Elvin Escobar and his dog Kira pose for a photo inside his truck on June 6, 2020. Photo: Shandana Qazi

“This, I tell you, destroys you morally, physically and mentally. It destroys the mind, the strength of the body, this virus destroys you. To date a psychologist speaks to me two, three times a day because the disease leaves physical, mental and emotional scars. The lungs, kidneys, nervous system, skin color with yellow spots can be damaged as it has happened to me, and also mental damage like loneliness or depression. The psychologist calls every three or four hours, he talks to me to ask me what I am doing, what’s going through my mind, because as I repeat, this virus is deadly, fatal….”

“The day before yesterday they sent me out to take the COVID-19 test, and I already came out negative. I’m waiting to start working this Friday or Monday because the bills don’t wait. I’m late on the rent, after 20 days without work. Instantaneously, I ran through my savings to pay the phone bill and well, everything. Supposedly I am waiting for the fiscal stimulus but I have not received it.”

Elvin looks nervously at the news that says that a person might not be immune to the virus even after what he went through. “Firstly God that this is a virus that once overcome causes immunity, and firstly God that he may enlighten all those who are studying it to find a cure.”

He intends to keep all necessary precautions by using disinfectants, gloves, facemasks and if he can find a visor even better. “Latinos we made fun of this, I say it about myself, we made songs, memes, and we don’t take it seriously until a family member experiences it firsthand.”

He sees the protests of people demanding that states reopen. “…But the governors, I think if they govern well, they will say stay at home and take heed. We can recover money later. Like what happened after 9/11, but we got out of those economic disasters. Today we have to be united more, and should it come that we must stay at home, let’s stay at home.”

Elvin can’t wait to make meals for those who helped him out. “And if there are people who need help, they can count on me that I am willing to help anyone, economically I cannot do it, but I can bring them food, medicine, and give them my support. If they urgently need to go to the hospital I will do the same that someone did for me: I’ll haul them in their cars to the door of the hospital and then park their cars again.” 

People were so generous with Elvin that he has pantry supplies to give away, and he’ll even share his own steambath recipe made with eucalyptus and vicks vaporoo to be inhaled in a closed bathroom. “Wow, that cleared my entire respiratory system.”

“It is a painful experience to live through, but at the same time it fills you with emotion because you get to know who is who. No matter the social or economic status, never underestimate anyone. Value that everyone is worthy and even more so at a time like this when we must support each other and be more united. Together we can get ahead, the material things, the economy can wait a little. Firstly God, this nation will overcome this virus.”

Elvin gets excited again talking about others’ kindness. “I got texts coming from friends in Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and from here in San Francisco and even from other states. As the song goes “Stand by Me,” and as I say, I can be a volunteer, I can give away what I have within my reach for what you need. It is a very beautiful thing that you feel. And it is very nice to receive emotional support with a text that says ‘get well soon.’”

End Note

These interviews took place from May 15-20, 2020 by phone. They were made possible through community ties. My friend and Mayan warrior, Luis Poot Pat, introduced me to Doña Lucy, while we were doing community outreach for the Unidos en Salud testing dates in the Mission District. Doña Lucy introduced me by WhatsApp to Esperanza Novelo. Esperanza Novelo introduced me to Jeremias Yerbes and Raul Chan. Meanwhile, Luis Poot Pat introduced me to Q. and Lucio Ku. Lucio is also a friend of Jeremias Yerbes, and Jeremias Yerbes introduced me to Elvin Escobar. Their tree of relationships resulted in a strong representation of Yucatecan Mayans and one Salvadoran.

The COVID-19 virus has made palpable the tight social weave that connects us to each other, even among strangers, as the virus passes hand to hand, breath to breath. In the wake of its consequences, the most impacted individuals among us teach us, through their narratives, to spread kindness and compassion, and seek sound information. This special report is dedicated to all the survivors of COVID-19 and the memory of all those who passed away. A special prayer goes out to the disproportionately impacted Asian community of San Francisco for bearing the brunt of the fatalities. Rest in peace.

At the close of this issue, I reached out to each individual for an update. Jeremias Yerbes, Esperanza Novelo, Raul Chan, and Elvin Escobar were back hard at work as frontline workers. The more specialized catering nature of Lucio Ku’s job has left him unemployed, and Q. has been searching every day for work on the streets, in restaurants, without luck. 

Essential workers are our community heroes. Pay them living wages. Cancel payment of their rent, mortgages and utilities. Protect their rights as workers. Give them an opportunity to survive the pandemic with dignity.