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The lessons of a Chelsea family’s COVID-19 ordeal

Rosa Yanes is a reminder of the lopsided impact of the coronavirus pandemic, the uneven devastation affecting the most vulnerable whose own return to normal will never be normal.

Rosa Yanes.Craig F. Walker

A year ago, Rosa Yanes was at her lowest point.

Her husband, Roberto, was rushed to the hospital on April 1 with COVID-19. He was so sick doctors intubated him. Rosa also had COVID-19, and was running a fever and had chest pains. In fact, nearly everyone in her household — a three-bedroom apartment in Chelsea — contracted the virus and fell ill to varying degrees: Rosa’s sister and a niece, as well as Rosa and Roberto’s three children, including their 11-year-old son who has asthma. The only one who was not infected was her infant niece.

“The very worst of last year was when the doctors told me [Roberto] was intubated and they really didn’t give us a lot of hope for him,” Rosa said in an interview in Spanish. “I thought he was going to die. And by then I was also sick with the virus. I kept telling myself, ‘I have to be strong, I can’t leave my kids all by themselves.’ I would go crazy just thinking I would leave them alone. And I couldn’t do anything about it except tell myself to be strong.”

An immigrant from El Salvador, Rosa wasn’t well enough to go back to work as an office cleaner until late May, she said, leaving the family with no income. Her husband was in the hospital for nearly two months, hovering near death. Her world hanging by a thread, Rosa held it together. And now, one year later, she is a reminder of the lopsided impact of the pandemic, the uneven devastation affecting the most vulnerable whose own return to normal will never be normal. And it’s not over yet for Rosa and for many like her.


In Chelsea, the mostly Latino city of immigrants that was the epicenter of the coronavirus in the state last year, roughly 21 percent of residents have been diagnosed with COVID-19. That’s likely an undercount: a study last year found a higher prevalence of infection there. The reasons why the virus found the perfect mark in Chelsea have been explored: The tiny city has the highest rate of overcrowded housing in the state, a large share of front-line workers, and high rates of asthma.


Rosa is no stranger to struggle. I wrote about her a little over two years ago for Globe Live, a show where Boston Globe journalists narrate stories on stage in front of a live audience. Rosa works for a janitorial services company that cleans the Globe offices. I told the story of the Trump administration’s threat to terminate the immigration program that allows Rosa to work and protects her from deportation — Temporary Protected Status. But even though the program is safe under Joe Biden, TPS holders are still in a sort of immigration limbo, as they are not allowed to get green cards and apply for citizenship.

Rosa’s husband, 43, was overweight and had a heart condition. After he was discharged from the hospital, he spent nearly a month in physical therapy. He suffered from mild depression. He still has sharp pain in his lower back, which has prevented him from returning to his job as a car mechanic in Malden. The loss of his income has meant that Rosa’s 19-year-old daughter, Estefani, who graduated from high school in the midst of the pandemic last year, put on hold her plans to go to community college and is instead working at an East Boston clinic. Rosa’s sister also lost her job at a laundromat last year because of the pandemic and hasn’t been able to find work.


Luckily, Rosa’s landlord has been accommodating and understanding when she is late paying rent. (Most Globe employees know Rosa — and many collectively donated more than $10,000 last year to help her family buy groceries and pay bills and rent.) As a TPS holder, Rosa received stimulus payments. Still, she said, “I tell my kids that we have to tighten our belts.”

Rosa is only one of many Chelsea immigrants who still face the long tail of COVID-19: informal evictions due to tenant subleases and other nontraditional rental agreements, extensive income losses, and deep food insecurity. The pandemic hit Chelsea hard because of its preexisting conditions, which many elected officials were willfully ignorant of pre-pandemic. But COVID-19 made previously invisible people like Rosa visible, impossible to overlook. They are a critical component of the economic engine that powers Boston and its businesses — the workers who made it possible for others like me to work from home. As we celebrate our return to something resembling normal, let’s not forget that, for many others, normal still is a long way off.

Marcela García is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at Follow her @marcela_elisa and on Instagram @marcela_elisa.