Our reporting, distributed via text messages, has addressed the evolving needs of our audience, such as information on food distribution and the details of Oakland’s eviction moratorium. 

You can’t work. They are furloughing people and the bills and rent are due, but if it’s for your own good, what can you do?”

It was the second week of March when Alameda County, along with six other Bay Area counties, announced a shelter-in-place order, suddenly bringing normal life to a halt. Businesses closed. Kids stayed home from school. Phrases like “social distancing” entered the vernacular.

While I had a host of questions about what this all meant, at least I could understand the information that public officials and government agencies were putting out. That is, at least I could speak English. Graphics and memes about hand washing had circulated online for weeks, but I struggled to find clear and simple guidance in Spanish. Not from the county health department. Not from the increasingly frequent newsletters from city leaders. Not on the Facebook pages of community organizations. Now that new policies regulating movement, business activity, and schooling would be enacted, it was clear that community news outlets like El Tímpano would have a big role to play in informing immigrant communities about this pandemic.

For the past two months, El Tímpano — a local reporting lab I founded three years ago to serve Oakland’s Latinx immigrants — has provided information in Spanish about COVID-19, beginning with basic guidance on how to stop the spread of germs and the parameters of the county’s shelter-in-place order. Over the weeks, our reporting, distributed via text messages, has addressed the evolving information needs of our audience as they navigate life during the shutdown, such as information on food distribution sites, resources to access computers and internet service, financial assistance programs, and the details of Oakland’s eviction moratorium.

Distributing crisis information, however, is only one aspect of our reporting strategy. Just as important is providing a platform for community members to share their questions, hopes, and concerns. They have a lot to say.

Estoy un poco preocupada pues he conocido unos casos de personas que tienen síntomas del COVID-19 pero no les hacen la prueba hasta tener más síntomas…

I’m a little worried because I’ve seen some cases of people who have symptoms of COVID-19 but they don’t take a test until they have more symptoms…

Alameda County Health Department maps show East Oakland zip codes — the area where El Tímpano’s audience primarily resides — a collage of deep reds and browns, an indication of the Black and brown residents who have tested positive for the virus. A look at figures broken down by race show that Latinos, who represent one in every five residents, represent one of every three positive cases in the county thus far.

Usted sabe cuál es un número para hablar si uno está enfermo con CV19?

Do you know which number to call to talk to someone if I’m sick with COVID-19?

What the public health maps don’t show are the other ways the virus and the shelter-in-place order affect East Oakland and other low-income communities. Two years ago, when El Tímpano asked community members how they have been impacted by the rising cost of housing, residents described how little they have left from their paycheck after accounting for rent. Today, while job losses are staggering across the board, low-income residents have experienced the brunt of the impact, and community members are sharing with us their stress about covering basic necessities.

Soy padre de familia. Yo no fui calificado del ayuda del gobierno. Yo he perdido mi trabajo con esa pandemia. ¿Dónde puedo pedir ayuda para dar para mi renta?

I’m the head of my household. I did not qualify for the government’s assistance. I’ve lost my job due to this pandemic. Where can I ask for help to pay my rent?

El Tímpano has received more than 100 responses from audience members to our coronavirus messages. (You can view some on El Tímpano’s Instagram feed.) Many are simply words — and emojis — of gratitude for keeping them informed. Others are specific questions: Are the banks still open? Are the buses still running? Will I qualify for such-and-such financial assistance? Producer Vanessa Nava has answered every single one — reporting that often involves calling direct service providers to make sure their phones are working and that they provide their services in Spanish.

One of the first responses sent in on the topic was from a parent concerned that their child might fall behind in school. “I have heard that perhaps they are giving classes online, and this worries me because I don’t have a computer.” We pointed them to a local non-profit that distributes computers to Oakland families in need.

Other messages are simply reflections on how residents are experiencing the crisis, or what they want elected leaders to know. When we reported that undocumented immigrants would not be eligible for stimulus checks approved by Congress, we asked our audience to share how they have been affected financially, and more than a dozen responded.

Me parece que son injustos porque también los que no tenemos papeles tenemos derecho. Nosotros no sabemos cómo pagar la renta y los biles.

To me it seems unjust because those of us who don’t have papers, we have rights too. We don’t know how we’re going to pay the rent and bills.

This two-way conversation taking place over texting— the same intimate medium I use to check in on friends and family across the country — not only allows El Tímpano to provide our audience with information, but allows them to tell us what information they need, and what questions our reporting has not yet answered. In doing so, we are able to document the public health and economic crisis as it unfolds among those most impacted, capturing not only their stories and concerns, but also their sources of hope in a time of uncertainty.

Están los hijos todavía chicos y tenemos que seguir adelante y por nosotros mismos; no vamos a rendirnos fácil.

We will continue onward for our own sake and that of our children, because they are still little; we will not surrender easily.

Madeleine Bair is an award-winning journalist and media developer, and the founder of El Tímpano. Madeleine has been carrying a microphone in her backpack since she belonged to the Oakland bureau of the Peabody Award-winning youth media organization, Children’s Express. As Senior Program Manager at the international nonprofit, WITNESS, she led a pioneering initiative dedicated to advancing the use of citizen video as a tool for human rights. Madeleine has taught radio production to young adults, worked on a morning show at Chicago Public Radio, and produced multimedia for Human Rights Watch. Her stories have appeared in the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, Colorlines, and Orion, and broadcast on PRI’s The World and Independent Lens. She lives with her partner and son in Oakland, where she spends her free time making mixtapes, dancing cumbia, and exploring the region on bike.