Helping the Asian American Community Recover from the Devastation of COVID-19

Disclaimer: The views presented here are of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of United Hospital Fund, its staff, or its board of directors.

January 2020 was supposed to be an auspicious time for the Asian American community of New York. Lunar New Year has always been an important celebration for many Asian American ethnic groups, who often ring in the occasion with family and friends while taking part in traditional activities. 

But that all changed with COVID-19. In fact, the virus began to negatively affect the Asian American community two months earlier than the rest of New York City—in January 2020. 

Economic Hardships and Anti-Asian Racism

Because the media continually repeated the unproven claim that the coronavirus came from the Wuhan Province in China, many people were avoiding New York City’s Chinese American neighborhoods, long before the general NYC shutdown in March. Lunar New Year dinners were being cancelled, causing a ripple effect from restaurants to other neighborhood businesses. According to the Chinatown Business Improvement District, small businesses in Manhattan’s Chinatown reported a decline in sales of between 40 and 80 percent in January. Also that month, the Flushing Chinese Business Association estimated that business was down 40 percent in Flushing, Queens. 

In a survey conducted by the Chinese-American Planning Council (CPC), 70 percent of its community members reported a loss in work hours or a loss in jobs altogether in July 2020. The New York State Department of Labor saw unemployment claims from Asian Americans spike 6,900 percent in April 2020 (147,000 claims), the highest of any racial or ethnic group. Because Asian American neighborhoods in New York City were particularly hard hit as early as January, businesses were forced to lay off workers. About 25 percent of residents in Asian American neighborhoods work in industries like restaurants, hotels, retail, and personal care where layoffs have been most prevalent and where jobs will be slowest to recover.

Xenophobia affected not only the economic stability but also the public safety of the Asian American community. As the pandemic spread throughout the United States in March 2020, President Donald Trump would continue to blame China, using terms like the “Chinese virus” and “kung flu.” Anti-Asian racism related to COVID-19 would surge in New York City, as 316 racist incidents against Asian Americans were reported to the New York City Police Department (NYPD) between March and July 2020. In response, the NYPD would form an Asian Hate Crime Task Force in August 2020.

Because of the pandemic, Asian American community members are also facing food insecurity, inaccessible health care, high medical costs, mental health needs, difficulty with their children’s education, inability to assist aging family members, problems paying rent, and unemployment. These issues are exacerbated for undocumented immigrants and mixed status families, who have been left out of federal stimulus packages.

Pandemic Highlighted Social Determinants of Health

The pandemic starkly illustrates the importance of the social determinants of health. According to a study that disaggregated data from patients of New York City Health + Hospitals during the first wave in 2020 on Asian American ethnic groups in New York City, Chinese New Yorkers have had higher COVID-19 death rates than any other racial group at 35.7%, and South Asian New Yorkers have had the second-highest rate of test positivity behind the Latinx community.

To access much-needed support, Asian Americans reached out to nonprofit organizations like CPC, which provides culturally competent and linguistically appropriate services. Community members seeking assistance in enrolling in unemployment insurance, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and other public benefits flooded the phone lines of CPC’s community centers. Community members relied on CPC because New York State’s helpline for filing unemployment claims had limited interpretation and translation available. Many community members were also hesitant to enroll in public benefits because of the Trump Administration’s public charge rule.

Asian American seniors were especially isolated, stuck in their homes by themselves. They relied on CPC for their one hot meal of the day as well as PPE, toiletries, and technology needed to receive services. Community members who have limited English proficiency and limited digital literacy struggled more with social isolation. Many relied on Chinese radio and WeChat for their daily news updates. 

CPC staff mobilized to address an influx of requests for assistance in completing unemployment insurance and housing vouchers, as well as SNAP, Medicaid, and other benefit applications. CPC processed over 1,500 requests for cash assistance to eligible community members, many of whom did not qualify for federal stimulus relief.

One of them was a new mother named Alice who faced a lack of resources in April during the early months of the pandemic. She was terrified to leave the house with her new infant and take public transportation due to COVID-19. She tried to obtain food assistance for weeks over the phone but did not get any response from the New York State helpline. Then her husband lost his job. An immigrant, Alice lives in a mixed-status household and did not know whether her family would qualify for SNAP. She called CPC for help enrolling in SNAP and securing an EBT card; CPC staff contacted the City office to verify Alice’s information remotely to help her get the EBT card. CPC also gave emergency cash assistance to the family, which they used to cover rent and necessities for their infant child. 

Needed Steps for the Asian American Community’s Recovery

The pandemic has shown how the health and well-being of the Asian American community is tied to the capacity and sustainability of Asian American organizations. Because Asian American organizations do not receive an equitable share of public and private funding, government contracts and foundation grants must be allocated fairly to the Asian American community. Since the pandemic had disparate impacts on communities of color, New York State must also disaggregate data on Asian American ethnic groups, which would be critical to targeting health resources. Nonprofit workers have played an essential role throughout the pandemic, and the City and State must increase funding for contracted nonprofit organizations to provide human services, home care, and direct care workers with a living wage, hazard pay, and PPE. And considering the gaps in our health care system laid bare by the pandemic, I believe that New York State must pass the New York Health Act, to provide comprehensive health care to every New Yorker. 

While the Asian American community was the first to suffer, these changes will ensure its members will not be the last to recover.

Wayne Ho is the President and CEO of the Chinese-American Planning Council.

United Hospital Fund has a long history of bringing together diverse perspectives to address critical challenges in health care in New York. In the current crisis, it’s more important than ever to hear from all parts of the health care system. Today’s commentary from Wayne Ho looks at needed steps for helping New York's Asian American community recover from the effects of the pandemic. – UHF President Tony Shih

Aug. 31, 2021