(Jeff Nguyen – Northwest Vietnamese News) In 2014, Dr. Thuy Do joined the coalition of international respondents to the Ebola crisis. She and other healthcare workers and community leaders braved fear, stigma and the unknown as they tackled the epidemic. She came back to serve her community, after being subject to a rigorous battery of testing, monitoring and quarantines. As a family medicine physician in South Seattle, she once again faces another international health crisis hitting far too close to home. Her and other Vietnamese-American physicians are contending with a gauntlet of risks and challenges in this new normal. They do so as a part of the Vietnamese community, whose members are working through mutual aid and innovation to break down misinformation and barriers to access.
Vietnamese healthcare professionals specifically may face challenges in both risk management and care related to multi-generational households. According to the Pew Research Center, 32% of Vietnamese-American households are multigenerational, containing two or more adult generations and/or grandchildren/grandparents. There are multiple degrees of risk and potential exposures with COVID-19 that healthcare workers must navigate. “My sister works in Memory Care [at Kline Galland] so we were always concerned about it. We had to work out when we worked, and when we came home we had to self-isolate in our own house…we started having separate trips, we sat apart at our own kitchen table, stuff like that.” said Kathleen Nguyen, a CNA working in Renton.
Immediate responses to support overwhelmed healthcare workers have ranged from employee testing, technical assistance, and an outpouring of community resources. Community support has been especially crucial to self-producing and distributing adequate PPE. “With our own clinic in South Seattle, PPE was really hard to find in the beginning but we got a lot of donations from the community like masks and such. For example, we had a guy in pest control who had N95s in abundance.” said Dr. Do. Her clinic has made an increasingly common choice of transforming an office visit into phone calls, telemedicine and car window consultations.
Taking family into consideration
Care providers especially have had to navigate the dynamics of a multigenerational household in patient care. “My Vietnamese patients, especially elders, have a really heightened sense of caution around this. I think we have a very communal culture, and the members of a family are having these conversations about how to protect and live with each other.” said Dr. Do. For elderly patients with long-term care needs, providers may run into inherent problems with telehealth access and less consistent communication. “So a procedure like dry eyes that requires frequent in-person visits, we now have to communicate all that through phone calls and telemedicine,” said Emily Nguyen, a clinic manager with Optometry Medical Group. “So that’s where a multigenerational household may help them out.”
For many Vietnamese workers and business owners, their risk calculation is never very simple. According to King County census data, Vietnamese Americans are concentrated in South Seattle and King County, which intersect with more low-income residences and higher rates of poverty. Even before the pandemic, families may be struggling with the challenge of providing for a large multigenerational household. Under current circumstances, it’s an uphill battle as unemployment rates soar across Washington and the rest of the country. The lack of economic opportunities beyond essential work with high risk of exposure may leave many with a frightening no-win situation. For example frontline workers like Kathleen often fall under low socioeconomic status and get overlooked for PPE, which are dangerous overlapping conditions when they come back to a large household
But although these structures create challenges and risks, they are also important to serve as assets to the Vietnamese community’s resilience and recovery. “I see it often in my Vietnamese patients. For a lot of folks, living together helps you to have that support and family structure throughout what’s happening. I think that’s been essential for the mental health of elders, especially. On the flip side, this pandemic makes life so much more difficult for elders that are living alone.” Multigenerational households have been shown to provide a stronger social structure, especially for elders with limited access, as well as provide solace from stress and alleviate financial burdens with multiple incomes. Mental health is of special concern during an isolating lockdown, and a supportive family environment is shown to be extremely helpful.
“A lot of patients, they’ve chosen to stay at home and out of work, even if it’s their livelihood. They know the risks that they could carry home to their children or grandparents.” said an anonymous Seattle doctor.
Fighting misinformation and discrimination
Misinformation has been another hurdle that community providers must navigate. Although institutions such as the University of Washington have set specific task forces to handle misinformation, non-English language fake news may still run rampant through social media. Fake news may, especially for vulnerable community members take away valuable time, finances and resources with dead ends and false claims. “The biggest misinformation I’ve seen is around how much testing we have. We don’t have as much as they claim. And then it’s falsifying how deadly the virus is or whether there are cures already available.” said Dr. Do.
Anti-Asian racism still looms large for Asian-American providers since the start of the pandemic. Through the month of April to May, the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council has received over 1700 incident reports of anti-Asian discrimination over a period of 6 weeks. 9 incidents occurred in Seattle during this time according to Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best. “I’m fortunate that I and most of my colleagues work in community health settings so I haven’t personally experienced anything, but I’ve definitely read the news about incidents of racism that have occurred.” said Dr. Do. Healthcare workers have experienced verbal and physical abuse from patients, impacting their ability to provide critical care and deeply affecting mental health in an already extremely stressful environment
“These patients are placing their trust in me so I’m focused on treating them, although I acknowledge there are implicit biases in medicine from both the patients and the providers.” said an anonymous doctor. “Pre-COVID I have had some encounters with racial overtones. I’ve worked as a waiter so it’s nothing new to me. I do feel like my current role gives me a little protection from it, however there’s no reason not to suspect it exists in other essential roles to a worse degree.”
Vietnamese aid to front-line workers
But out of this pandemic, Vietnamese communities nationwide have rallied in many ways, big and small to support beleaguered healthcare providers. One of the most well-documented efforts is “Nailing It” a campaign by Los Angeles based Vietnamese-owned nail salons. The incredible combined efforts of those businesses donated up to 120,000 masks and 300,000 gloves to local healthcare workers. In Washington State, Katie Nguyen, a tailor from Spanaway, Washington converted her home tailoring office into a social distancing compliant workshop for masks assisting clinics across the state. Food delivery, PPE donations, medical funds and art displays make up the range of kind acts and purposeful organizing.
These efforts are examples of mutual aid that support healthcare providers outside of the clinic. Technology is also being harnessed among younger Vietnamese-Americans to rally their common resources. UC Berkeley graduate Cookie Duong founded a website called the Interpreter that calls on a roster of Vietnamese translators to make news accessible. Local social media groups composed of young Vietnamese professionals are founding and supporting mutual aid services providing essential food and medication. These acts of solidarity go far to support community health and clear misinformation beyond the reach of a clinic.
“My parents are having a hard time connecting with the Vietnamese community when they’re staying at home. So besides picking weird hobbies, they’re staying occupied by making masks and donating them to community centers and healthcare workers. It’s a way for them to stay involved in the community when everything is closed.” said Kathleen.
Jeff Nguyen – Northwest Vietnamese News