Iowa’s Myanmar refugees at much greater risk of contracting COVID-19
COLUMBUS JUNCTION — Iowa is home to about ten-thousand refugees from Myanmar, also known as Burma. Most of them work in the state’s meatpacking plants, where they can make better than minimum wages without having to know English. But because of that, the entire community is disproportionately at risk for COVID-19.Pastor Benjamin Sang Bawi, of Carson Chin Baptist Church in Columbus Junction, says many of them have had the virus or been exposed to it. Sang Bawi says, “Of course in the beginning, we were really scared and panicked and when they received a positive so they think that they’re going to die.”In a decade, the ethnic Chin community in Columbus Junction has grown to nearly 20-percent of the population in the town of about 2,300. It’s also home to a Tyson meatpacking plant, which attracted the refugee families. At least 221 workers there have tested positive and two died. Sang Bawi says his community knows the risks of the plants, but there’s virtually no other work in town. “If they don’t go to work, how they will survive? That is a big question,” Sang Bawi says. “So…and of course every, every family [is] concerned about that.”Many of the refugees are Christians who fled ethnic violence and the world’s longest-running civil war. Sang Bawi says the pandemic has been traumatizing for children too, including his own, ages seven and ten. “We ask them to pray at the dining table for food,” Sang Bawi says. “They only know how to pray for the COVID-19 and all they keep on saying, ‘Let’s go away.’”COVID-19 has left refugees even more vulnerable than before, facing barriers to transportation, social services and even basic information. Abigail Sui of the Iowa refugee rights group EMBARC says adjusting to life in the U.S. is a huge challenge for families who have spent years in refugee camps. “Many of our families do not have computer(s) and access to internet or know how to use computer or technology,” Sui says. “So we need a system to accommodate immigrant and refugee communities.”According to the group, refugees from Myanmar in Iowa speak 27 languages and dialects. Lack of English proficiency is a major challenge, as is a lack of interpreters. In May, Sui urged local officials in Waterloo to do more to directly support the large refugee community there. “Families that are self-isolating in their homes need food delivery,” Sui says. “Not a phone number to the food pantry, they need food delivered to their door. And we are doing that.”Meat packing plants say they’re providing personal protective gear, workstation barriers, and offering testing. Still, many are pushing production levels back up to full capacity and reverting to stricter attendance policies.