Honoring Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders during COVID-19

By Asha Banerjee

May was partially chosen as Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage month to mark the completion of the transatlantic railroad, built by Chinese immigrants who finished it on May 10, 1869. But the term does not only refer to Chinese Americans. AAPI encompasses a global fabric of cultures, histories, and people spanning the Pacific Islands to the Indian subcontinent, where my own family comes from. COVID-19 has made impossible the vibrant, in-person museum exhibitions, fragrant food festivals, and pulsating dance performances of previous years—and has instead exposed the systemic racism and hardship AAPI workers and families regularly face. However, we must celebrate and honor the AAPI community’s immense achievements now more than ever. We can do that, in part, by recognizing and working for proactive measures that can help counter the xenophobia, discrimination, and barriers this community continues to face during this crisis.

But before digging into the challenges facing AAPI people today, let’s get one thing clear: As a term, AAPI is somewhat problematic. The Americans subsumed in this category claim ancestry in countries as different as Vietnam, Tonga, Laos, the Philippines, Pakistan, and more. Each country and community has a unique immigration history and demographic pattern. This troubling erasure-by-generalization has significant implications for government budget allocations. For instance, in education, AAPIs are also grouped with Native American students. That makes any sort of data collection and meaningful understanding of specific population trends and characteristics very difficult. Without such key information, it is that much harder to ensure resources go where they’re most needed.  

A diverse group, AAPI communities are invaluable to our country. Unfortunately, COVID-19 has revealed an ugly element of America’s workforce: we rely on AAPI workers for our health and safety, whether they are doctors, paramedics, cashiers or deliverers. Over 2 million AAPI people work on the frontlines, allowing the rest of us to stay home safely. However, even as they risk their lives, millions of AAPI workers also face high rates of unemployment, rampant discrimination, harassment, xenophobia, and weak worker protections. The rate of unemployment for Asians in April 2020 was 14.1 percent, or one in seven people, with Pacific Islanders and other communities likely facing more devastating rates of joblessness and income loss.

In fact, a report before the coronavirus outbreak found that nearly one in four AAPIs in California worked but struggled with poverty. The virus and recession have undoubtedly increased the hurdles these workers must overcome to cover basic needs and support their families. Furthermore, due to inadequate medical coverage and other social supports in rural or impoverished areas, the novel coronavirus is disproportionately infecting and killing AAPIs, relative to their share of the population.  

This is not new. In other times in our history, AAPI people have put themselves on the frontlines only to face discrimination, poor working conditions, and harassment in return. Think of the Chinese immigrants who built the transatlantic railroad. They faced lower pay, persecution, and ultimately deportation as Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act. It was the first legislation barring a specific ethnicity from the United States. In the 20th century, Japanese Americans were forcibly relocated to internment camps.

A century later, as we face levels of economic devastation similar to the Great Depression, we must do better to recognize and support AAPI workers. We may not be able to have parades this year. But we can call for the passage of bold, protective legislation to extend unemployment benefits, cancel student loan debt and invest in subsidized child care. These policies would provide much-needed relief to AAPI workers and families who need the nation’s support during this pandemic.