The winds blew southwest the day of Pahokee’s Covid-19 vaccination drive, which meant the sugarcane fields were ablaze. Growers are banned from burning excess leaves when there’s an eastward breeze, to keep fumes away from the gated communities of Florida’s Gold Coast 40 miles away. Pahokee is in the same county but, with a median personal income of $13,674, its residents live in a different world.
A single highway connects the billionaire’s club of Mar-a-Lago to the working-class western edge of Palm Beach County, the vast shopping malls and mimosa-drenched restaurants giving way to acres of endless, flat fields. There are no buildings to break the horizon, only the desolate, empty beauty of farmlands reaching to meet the sky, with distant spirals of black smoke rising up to the gathering clouds.
Many of those here and in neighboring Belle Glade work in Big Sugar fields and factories: planting, harvesting, and packing sucrose to feed Florida’s $3 billion industry. Yet more than a third of the population lives in poverty. Around 60% of the inhabitants are Black, while Hispanic people make up a quarter of the population in Pahokee and almost a third in Belle Glade.
For the Feb. 13 vaccination event, a slow stream of cars arrived all morning and early afternoon at the Pahokee High School football stadium, down a quiet road flanked by dark fields and mostly empty school parking lots. There were never more than six vehicles in the observation area where people waited for 15 minutes after they’d had their vaccine. Typically, at least five of the cars were filled with white occupants.
They came from Stuart and West Palm Beach and Miami, even from Port Charlotte on the Gulf coast, many arriving in Pahokee for the first time. Plenty of locals were vaccinated too, but they were outnumbered by the out-of-towners. They drove with hearts in their mouths, anxious at the possibility of finally getting Covid-19 protection after weeks of rising at 5:45 a.m. to unsuccessfully enter the online lottery for vaccines that had been outsourced to the Publix supermarket chain.
“I’m so grateful. I feel I’m going to have another chance to live,” said Nancy Gerace, a 73-year-old, white retired teacher from West Palm Beach with type 2 diabetes. She wiped away tears of relief and shakily thanked everyone in sight. “I’ve been so scared of this virus, I’ve seen so many people around me who’ve died,” she said. “I have too many other things I want to do before I die.”
Individually, each person who arrived was desperate for a life-protecting injection. Collectively, their demographics reflected a pattern that has played out within Florida and across the United States, where the Black and Hispanic populations disproportionately affected by Covid-19 have been left behind in the vaccine rollout. In Palm Beach County, while Black people make up 18% of residents and Hispanic people 21.7%, these communities had received just 4.1% and 4.7% of vaccines respectively, as of March 1. [Continue reading…]