After an atypical year marked by a scenario of mandatory use of protective masks, school disruptions, social isolation and business shutdowns, El Sol Latino asks Joanna Otero Cruz, Deputy Managing Director for the Community Services Cabinet of the City of Philadelphia to review the lessons learned during the pandemic and to consider the current City’s projections.
Otero has played an important role as a leader and spokesperson for the needs of women, children and families across the state. Through her committed work, this outstanding Latina has become a highly respected reference for equity.
In her sensitive and empathetic tone, the Director presented at the Hispanic Media’s Philadelphia office, Sol Latino’s home base, her perspective on the most important issues concerning her position.
Personal impact of the pandemic
The coronavirus epidemic affected Joanna in a direct way because unfortunately, despite having taken all preventive measures, members of her family became infected with the dreaded virus. She describes the experience as a “very difficult time,” which forced her to deal with the delicate health situation of her 72-year-old father and her husband’s hospitalization.
“Personally, it has affected me very much,” she says with emphasis on the sad experience of having lost loved ones. However, facing this adversity in a personal way has taught her to understand first-hand the difficulties faced by coronavirus victims.
According to Otero, the impact of COVID-19 in the city has been reflected not only in the loss of human lives, but also in its consequences for the economy. “Many families who were already struggling for their livelihoods lost their jobs and their income. Those people, a year later, are still worried about paying rent and making ends meet.”
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One year after the beginning of the pandemic, the Mayor’s Office has decided to honor the grief of the families who have lost their loved ones. Beyond the victims’ statistics, it is important to know that it is not just numbers. “They are tangible people: grandparents, uncles, aunts, uncles, brothers,” Otero points out. Regarding the vaccination process, she stated that “we are aware that we must make an effort to attend to those who have not received their vaccinations. For Latinos we have covered only 5% and we represent 15% of the population. So, we have a lot of work to do with our Latino families here in our city”.
“Mass vaccination centers and clinics have been activated. We have taken into account those people who care for elderly relatives and find it difficult to leave their homes,” says the Director and adds, “in order to solve this situation, we are working with the Health Department and the Fire Department to be able to access them and attend them adequately.
Additionally, we have a list of more than 300,000 applicants for vaccination, of which we have served 20% so far. This is all part of an effort we’ve been making to increase access to the vaccine for all Philadelphia residents.”
The small businesses that have been hard hit by the pandemic are also an important part of the city agency’s priorities. “A loan program is in process. So we are encouraging small businesses with less than twenty employees to apply.”
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“We want them to know that there is hope out there to keep them afloat. I think the launching of this program, in addition to what has already been done, it´s an effort to increase the availability of resources,” Otero said. He specified that the program intends to distribute aid in the form of loans and grants.
“The phila.gov portal provides all the necessary information. You can visit the Department of Commerce or access the PIDC (Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation) website. The application process is available there in English, Spanish and also in Mandarin.”
Facebook Live to inform
Misinformation has been one of the most serious obstacles in the fight against the pandemic. That is why Joanna is using social networks and digital media to face this problem.
“There is an urgent need for information. Some people have not decided whether to get vaccinated or not and some are afraid because they think the vaccine is just being developed right now. So the intention of implementing Facebook Live and Zoom meetings, including the support of media partners like El Sol Latino, is aimed at answering concerns about the vaccination process from a medical research point of view.”
Otero says there is also a need to share information about the logistics of implementation. For example, where and how to register and what procedures to follow. She clarified that the information is distributed in a bilingual format (Spanish and English) in order to make it more inclusive.
“We also have partners who will enable us to provide valuable assistance regarding residents’ mental health. They will be available to talk about the impact of the pandemic from a psychological perspective since isolation has greatly impacted this aspect of health.”
Joanna exemplifies the mental deterioration with the increase in cases of depression and anxiety. “Many families have reached out to us because of these effects on children and youth. Hence, the support we are providing in relation to information on where to get resources to deal with this situation.”
Rise in crime and guns
The disturbing topic of the growing violence in Philadelphia and the role that access to guns plays in it could not be missing from the conversation with Joanna Otero.
“Philadelphia, like other major cities has seen a significant increase in gun violence. Residents must understand that unfortunately laws concerning guns are not necessarily legislated by the City. There are federal and state laws that must be taken into account. Therefore, a great deal of work must be done at the legal level to bring about decisive changes in those laws. Especially because it is quite easy to have access to guns in Philadelphia whether they are registered or not,” Otero explains.
“This requires a lot of prevention efforts about the issue of guns and the responsibility involved in owning them. It used to be taboo to talk to children about guns, but unfortunately, we have to talk to our children about them.”
“I think the city is trying to make prevention, intervention and advocacy efforts that go hand in hand with all the reform work that is going on in the Mayor’s Office.” By way of conclusion, Otero is calling for the participation of community leaders. “We have different platforms to get input from community members and I hope that may go on, that there are more opportunities for Latinos and communities to raise their voices on this issue.”