For months now, as we have learned more about COVID-19, we have come to understand that its impact has been the most severe on those with underlying medical conditions and physical vulnerabilities.
Last week, we learned that among the most impacted in the Dubuque area is the Marshallese community.
Irene Maun Sigrah, a local Marshallese leader and a community health care worker, said Dubuque’s population of these Pacific Islanders has been tragically hard hit.
In addition to three coronavirus-related deaths among the Marshallese community, Sigrah made this haunting comment on the situation: “The ICUs are full of us.”
While local public health officials have not revealed ethnic demographic information about those who are sick with COVID-19 in Dubuque County, state-level statistics fall in line with Sigrah’s assertion. The Asian or Pacific Islander demographic makes up 2.8% of the state’s population, and Iowa Department of Public Health data show that 8.8% of confirmed COVID-19 cases statewide have been among that group.
The path of the Marshallese long has been a difficult road.
After wresting the Marshall Islands from Japanese control during World War II, the U.S. administered the region as a strategic trust territory, where from 1946 to 1958, a joint military and civilian task force conducted 67 nuclear tests.
The Marshallese people were exposed to radiation and other toxic chemicals, causing severe health problems that have continued generationally. The islands became a sovereign nation in 1986, but they remain tied to the U.S. through a Compact of Free Association. The compact grants Marshallese people and citizens of other former Pacific trust territories the right to live, work and study in the U.S. indefinitely without a visa or green card.
They are not considered immigrants or refugees. But neither are they considered U.S. citizens.
Therefore, this group — prone toward health problems — is unable to access Medicaid or other government relief assistance during this pandemic. Even accessing insurance is difficult.
Since the mid-1990s, increasing numbers of Marshallese families have settled in Dubuque. Now, the community numbers more than 800 by some estimates. In the Dubuque Community School District, Marshallese is the most common language among the students in the English Language Learner program.
Local officials recognized that this growing community needed support and developed the Pacific Islander Health Project at Crescent Community Health Center. More than a quarter of those in the local population are patients at Crescent.
This daunting combination of issues prompted local pulmonologist Dr. Mark Janes to launch a fundraising drive to help the Marshallese community in Dubuque during the COVID-19 pandemic. Janes reached out to Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque for help distributing the funds, and they set up a fund devoted to health services for Dubuque’s Marshallese community. (To donate: https://bit.ly/2Leu1KE)
For more than two decades, members of this fragile community have grown in Dubuque. They left their island home because U.S. testing of weapons made it unsafe there.
Here, they have found a home where they work, worship and study. They have become part of the fabric of the Dubuque community, and they need support.
In the short term, citizens can help financially buoy this challenged community by making donations.
In the long term, lawmakers should re-examine the status of the Marshallese to allow them access to governmental assistance.
After all, it was action by the U.S. government that led to many of the problems they face in the first place.