Distrust of authority fuels virus misinformation for Latinos

Claudia Guzman poses for a photo inside the medical clinic where she works July 22, 2020, in Memphis, Tenn. When Guzman suspected she had caught the coronavirus, her friends and family were full of advice: Don’t quarantine. Don’t get tested. A homemade tea will help cure you. Among Latinos in the U.S., misinformation around the coronavirus has found fertile ground because many in their communities have higher levels of distrust in government, less access to medical care and may need to be reached by Spanish-language public health resources.

MEMPHIS (AP) — When Claudia Guzman suspected she had caught the coronavirus, her friends and family were full of advice: Don’t quarantine. Don’t get tested. A homemade tea will help cure you.

“They were saying, ‘Don’t go to the hospital,’ because supposedly, if you are admitted into the hospital, they administer the virus into your body,” said Guzman, who was born in Chicago to parents from Mexico and now lives in Memphis, Tennessee.

False claims and conspiracy theories, ranging from bogus cures to the idea that the virus is a hoax, have dogged efforts to control the pandemic from the beginning. While bad information about the virus is a problem for everyone, it can pose a particular threat to communities of people of color who alreadyface worse outcomes from the virus.

Among Latinos in the U.S., misinformation around the coronavirus has found fertile ground because many in their communities have higher levels of distrust in government, less access to medical care and may need to be reached by Spanish-language public health resources. It’s a dangerous mix that could discourage people from taking precautions, participating in contact-tracing efforts, or getting treatment.

“There isn’t much evidence-based information in Spanish for them. And this is a new disease, so the science is evolving every day,” said William Calo, a Pennsylvania State University researcher who studies Hispanics and public health. “We are struggling with providing good information in English — just imagine adding a second language.”

With a population of 60 million, Hispanic people in the U.S. are now four times more likely than non-Hispanic white people to be hospitalized because of COVID-19, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Other studies also show Latinos in some areas are also twice as likely to die from the illness. (Native Americans and Black people face similarly stark disparities.)

These vulnerabilities have many causes. Among them are the fact that many Latinos are less likely to have health insurance or access to quality health care — sometimes because they can’t afford it and sometimes because of their immigration status. Many work in industries that are deemed essential and cannot be performed remotely, such as food service, sanitation, meat packing, construction and retail. And many live in larger, multigenerational households where social distancing is difficult.

Added to this already dangerous mix is a higher level of distrust in authority among Latinos — as is the case for other minority communities — that is helping fuel the spread of misinformation about the virus.

“If I’m hearing something from the government, from people who I, for a variety of reasons, don’t trust, then I’m not going to do anything,” said Monica Feliú-Mójer a Puerto Rican native and Harvard-trained neurobiologist who works to encourage Latinos to pursue science careers. “But if I hear this from my friend who I believe in, and who I trust, then it’s more likely that I’m going to act on that information.”

For many, the reluctance to get tested or seek treatment stems from fear of deportation in a community with a significant percentage of immigrants. That may be particularly true under President Donald Trump, said New York State Sen. Gustavo Rivera, a Democrat who represents a largely Hispanic district in the Bronx. Trump ran on promises to crack down on both illegal and legal immigration and has repeatedly painted immigrants — especially nonwhites — as posing a public health and safety danger.

That distrust could discourage people from getting treatment or from cooperating with government contact tracers trying to identify who an infected person had come into contact with.