How the pandemic has devastated San Francisco’s Asian communities

Published on
August 5, 2020

“I want to register for the city’s free food delivery for the elderly during the pandemic, but I don’t understand what’s going on when I call the hotline.”

Ms. Wong, who doesn’t speak English, lives in senior housing in San Francisco’s Chinatown by herself. As positive coronavirus cases rise in the Bay Area, she followed the stay-at-home order form the city and state. Wong’s in-home care provider sometimes delivers food and groceries to her. As someone considered at high risk of getting the COVID-19, she otherwise didn’t dare to go out and has limited resources to food.

When the mayor of San Francisco announced the Great Plates Delivered SF program to deliver free meals to the elderly, Wong called the hotline on the first day only to find the line was busy. She called again on the following day and told me that, after listening to a very long passage in English, she felt helpless because she didn’t hear any language options for switching to Cantonese.

The hotline actually has the option of switching to Cantonese by pressing “2.” The instruction came right after two sentences of greetings and an introduction in English. Why did Wong miss it?

Consider this: You are getting older and losing your hearing. After a few sentences of some language you do not understand at all, a very short and quick voice says, “For Cantonese press 2.” Your brain might not be quick enough to respond. Ms. Wong was not the only person who constantly face difficulties and barriers when accessing city provided resources.

At the end of the day, a volunteer from a Chinatown nonprofit organization helped Wong and her friends out.

But what about a separate number for each language? Or letting those who need language assistants know which button to press before they call?

Wong’s food delivery need was just one tiny piece of the broader lack of resources and services for Chinatown’s elderly and low-income community. The COVID-19 pandemic is disproportionately impacting the Asian community in many ways.

The Asian American Research Center on Health published a report in May stating that Asian Americans in San Francisco had the highest death rate of any racial and ethnic group. The relatively high proportion of deaths to cases of COVID-19 among Asian Americans in San Francisco and California raises concerns. Compared to the broader population, Asians have a relatively lower rate of testing positive. However, once infected, Asians are more likely to die. Possible explanations included lower rates of testing among Asian Americans, medical or social vulnerabilities, and disparities in access to quality health care, according to the report. Other possible explanations include the fact that most of the Asians who were infected were seniors.

California Assemblyman David Chiu said at a news conference this month that the Chinese community is experiencing three intense crisis this year: COVID-19 crisis and the economic recession are the obvious ones, but the less obvious crisis is the racism many Asians have experienced.

The seniors and low-income residents who live in San Francisco’s Chinatown say they’ve had enough. Business there dropped rapidly, even when there was not a single case in San Francisco. People have been yelled at, harassed, and assaulted simply because they looked “Chinese.” And the president has constantly blamed China for the spread of the virus, calling the coronavirus “Chinese Virus,” “Wuhan Virus,” and “Kung Flu.”

Since I was born and grew up in Hubei, the center of the epidemic in China, I was one of the very first reporters in our paper who has been focused on covering COVID-19, going back to early January. Early on, I interviewed sources in Wuhan and other cities in Hubei, wrote stories about the “lockdown life,” and looked at how community members in the San Francisco Bay Area were offering help overseas.

When the virus started to circulate locally, my stories focused mostly on state and local policies, COVID-19 related numbers and analysis, the Chinese community’s responses and needs, and the discrimination and hate crimes targeting the Asian community.

My project for the 2020 National Fellowship will more broadly focus on how the Chinese community can recover from this health crisis, while analyzing data that can provide a deeper sense of how the crisis has impacted Chinese and Asian communities.