Thu | May 28, 2020

‘Our lives are in danger’ - Caribbean workers in Florida living in fear of COVID-19 with no protection on the job

Published:Sunday | April 5, 2020 | 12:31 AMKaryl Walker - Senior Gleaner Writer

These are turbulent times for Caribbean nationals who work in healthcare and other essential areas in South Florida.

With the ravaging effects of the deadly coronavirus nipping at their heels, many are forced to face the storm and hope for the best as they strive to keep afloat in the United States to earn their bread to feed their families.

There are many Jamaican doctors and nurses who work in hospitals where the brunt of the effects of the respiratory disease is most obvious, but the spectrum of persons who face danger on a daily basis is much wider. They include certified nursing assistants, workers at grocery stores, Uber drivers, truck drivers, emergency response teams, and law enforcement officers.

Among those expressing concerns are several Jamaicans, other Caribbean nationals, and even white Americans who work at big chain stores in South Florida.

While most other businesses have drawn down their shutters, stores like Walmart, Aldi, Publix, Target and Winn Dixie are still operating, as they are listed as an essential service by the state of Florida.

Alvito Carnegie has been living in the United States for upwards of three decades and has been a produce stocker at a Walmart store in South Florida for 10 of those years.

The Jamaican is comfortable in his job. But lately, he has had reason to think twice.

No Protective Gear

Since the outbreak of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) and the rising death toll, he said his employers have not seen it fit to provide personal protective equipment in the form of gloves and masks to ensure that he and his fellow co-workers are protected from contracting the virus when customers flock the store for necessary supplies.

“I was stocking some vegetables on a shelf one day when an elderly man came into the store. He let go a wet sneeze and I had to sprint out of range. I was very upset and chipped two bad words as I ran away from the area. I returned and cursed out the man at the expense of losing my job, because customers always come first at Walmart,” he told The Sunday Gleaner.

“I do not know if that man is asymptomatic or if he has the virus, but he sneezed and that is very scary. We are all worried because up to yesterday (Friday), our manager told us that we must not wear gloves and masks. We are providing an essential service and I personally know that these customers are the reason I have a job; however, we must be allowed to protect ourselves.”

His sentiment was echoed by Fabrisha, a 27-year-old Jamaican woman who migrated to the United States three years ago and has been employed to the store for the last eight months.

“We handle cardboard boxes every day. Where are they coming from? Who handled them before us? They say the virus can live on these surfaces for some time, yet I must touch them with my bare hands? Our lives are in danger. On top of that, everything is made in China,” she lamented.

COVID-19 originated in the Wuhan province of China in December last year and has now spread across the world. To date, there are approximately 1,159,515 confirmed cases globally, with an estimated 62,375 deaths. So far, approximately 225,066 persons have recovered.

The United States has now recorded approximately 278,458 COVID-19 cases, with some 7,159 deaths. An estimated 9,897 persons have recovered.

The virus is spreading rapidly in Florida, where millions of Jamaicans and other Caribbean nationals live. The state is battling approximately 10,268 cases and already an estimated 170 persons have died.

Jane was born and raised in Minnesota but now lives in the warmer climes of South Florida. The Caucasian woman is feisty and has disregarded the edict laid down by her manager at her big chain retail outlet.

“They will have to fire me, as I am wearing my gloves. This is ridiculous. I have a family and I will do everything to protect myself,” Jane told The Sunday Gleaner.

At some major retail outlets and places that remain open for business during the outbreak of the new coronavirus in Florida, glass structures are erected at cashier stations to protect staff and customers against infection.

There was none at the two Walmart stores visited by The Sunday Gleaner on Friday, and some customers were within six feet of cashiers, who appeared quite apprehensive.

“I try to hold my breath when they come to pay for their goods and I use the hand sanitiser after every transaction,” a Trinidadian woman who works as a cashier in Broward County said.

“One woman came and was coughing terribly, so I turned my back, covered my face and took a few steps away. This is what we face on a daily basis but we are still lucky to have a job, as many people are out of work now.”

CORONA MUSIC

Yvonne has been a certified nursing assistant for over 20 years. The Jamaican currently takes care of a 95-year-old Jewish woman. Her job is now fraught with danger.

The woman’s children have been very stern in their warnings about Yvonne not going out and bringing the virus back into the home of their mother, who is in the category of persons most vulnerable to COVID-19.

“Last week, she sneezed twice. Blood came the second time and I was very scared because I had just returned from an errand she had asked me to run,” Yvonne recalled, noting that she had not been home in three weeks.

“I called in the doctor and after several tests it was determined that she had a cold. It was a big relief for me and her children. I am on tenterhooks, as she is my bread and butter and we are like mother and daughter. I don’t want anything to happen to her and then I get blamed for it.”

Karl, a Jamaican, drives trucks across the United States and delivers freight to grocery stores owned by the Publix chain.

He, too, is worried.

“It nuh easy, boss, travelling from state to state and handling these boxes and we don’t know if the virus is on them. Every day I pray and when I get home, I strip at the door down to my briefs and leave my clothes outside. I head straight for the shower. I am afraid to even hug my wife and child. We facing the corona music,” he declared.

karyl.walker@gleanerjm.com