Marshallese community hit hard by COVID-19

Despite pandemic, Marshallese community works together to provide resources needed

According to Dr. Sheldon Riklon, one of the few Marshallese physicians in the United States who is from Northwest Arkansas, Marshallese Arkansans account for almost 20% of COVID-19 cases in Northwest Arkansas while only making up about 2.4% of the area’s population.

“I think COVID has affected us even more tragically, more devastatingly,” Dr. Riklon said. “If you look at the numbers of how many of us have been affected by it, it definitely has affected us disproportionately.”

Riklon believes that the cause of these disproportionately large numbers is because of the high risk populations among the Marshallese community. 

“Many of us fall into those categories, having chronic conditions, you know chronic diseases,” he said. “We are at high risk for diabetes and hypertension and heart disease and asthma.” 

Living in multigenerational households with elderly people also causes the virus to spread and the death toll to increase. Riklon also says that Marshallese people often work essential jobs and are more likely to be exposed to the virus. 

“We’re frontline workers, whether it’s in the poultry plants or it’s at the stores or it is the airport, or nursing homes,” Dr. Riklon said. “So we’re out there doing what we need to do, but we’re put in high risk positions.” 

Financially, the Marshallese community has been hit hard by the pandemic. According to Richard Laraya, a member of the Marshallese Educational Initiative (MEI), many Marshallese families are unable to work because they’re under quarantine and they will quickly get piled up with bills and rent. 

“If you are one person in a house, that’s pretty simple because you probably can quarantine for two weeks and you’re done with it,” Dr. Riklon said. “But here, there are more than one employees, or breadmakers in the household, and they might get the virus at different times and they need to quarantine for at least two weeks at a time. That takes its toll on economics.”

Laraya works for MEI, whose mission is to promote the cultural, intellectual, and historical awareness of the Marshallese people through educational programming. MEI is making efforts to help Marshallese people who have been affected by COVID-19. 

“We got a grant to help families and individuals with rent,” Laraya said. “We were a part of the Marshallese COVID-19 Task Force, we help distribute food, water, cleaning supplies, and much more.” 

The Marshallese COVID-19 Task Force, according to Dr. Riklon, was formed in spring to educate their community and to provide whatever resources they could. 

MEI offers families affected by the virus financial and rental assistance. 

“We have had about 160 folks that have applied for rental assistance, and only 50 have filled out an application so far,” Laraya said. “We help around 40-ish pay their rent. That’s one of the major issues that we see now.”

In addition to rental assistance, MEI helps with utility bills such as water, electric, and gas. From September to December of 2020, MEI has assisted more than 1083 individuals. Many different Marshallese organizations in NWA have come together to help their community. 

“We’re fortunate that we’ve had a lot of good hearted people and organizations here in Northwest Arkansas that have been able to contribute to donations and such,” Riklon said. “So we’ve been trying to kind of do what we can and helping other families, but you know it’s still affecting them”

According to Laraya, COVID-19 also came as a cultural shock to the Marshallese community. 

“COVID has affected our culture,” Laraya said. “We used to go to our families or gatherings, and stuff like that, and the pandemic happened, we are moving on, but we still want to go visit them.”

According to Laraya the Marshallese community has made major changes in order to protect themselves from the virus. On the other hand, Riklon believes that although the pandemic has kept families and friends apart, their community is stronger and has learned to work together more. 

“We’ve been collaborating more,” Dr. Riklon said. “I think, before this pandemic, many of us were doing our own thing, separately. It’s made us more able to collaborate together with the same cause.”

According to Riklon, numbers of COVID-19 cases and deaths have begun to decline. 

“I know the number of cases and hospitalizations and deaths in Northwest Arkansas have continued to rise,” Riklon said, “but at least among the Marshallese community, it is on the decline. Which is great, you know, but I just want to remind everyone that we all need to continue to be vigilant and continue to follow the guidelines and get the vaccine, if it’s your time to get it.”

Dr. Riklon believes that the decline in numbers can be attributed to the community taking guidelines and rules more closely. 

“The community is very engaged in it, they understand what’s going on,” he said. “I think they’re following the guidelines more, and the rules and regulations.”

Dr. Riklon says that the community is trying to follow guidelines more seriously because they have witnessed their community suffer from COVID-19 first hand. 

“Many of us are very related to each other so the person that passed away is related to pretty much all of us in the community,” he said. “We know what we need to do if we want to stop this from continuing to spread and let our people die.”