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By Alex Tsang
My experience and thoughts about how we can move forward
On January 21, 2020, the battle against Covid-19 began in the U.S.
I was going through a pile of paperwork on my desk when a phone notification drew my attention: the first case of Covid-19 was confirmed in Washington state, as reported by CNN. As a Hongkonger, this news prompted me to recall the memories of my home city’s fight against SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) in 2003.
I was, and still am, working as a social services coordinator at a non-profit organization providing temporary residences for families in crisis in Washington, D.C., where many of the beneficiaries are Asian Americans over the age of 60. The residents were reading various news reports and rumors about the nature and impact of the pandemic, yet local health organizations shared little information at the time. During the Lunar New Year, lion dances and celebrations took place as usual.
Providing meals is one of the core services at my center, and participation saw a dramatic drop after the holiday. Collective anxiety was brewing. Miserably, I couldn’t share the lessons I learned from SARS with the community because I needed to remain professional and follow governmental agencies’ communication guidelines.
Shortly after, I began wearing a surgical mask on my work commute or when I went grocery shopping. I was met with comments like stop overreacting or you’re creating panic, with some people going so far as to shout racially-charged abuse at me. They were acts of intimidation that I didn’t expect.
Some of the seniors I work with shared similar concerns, as they were afraid of the consequences of wearing a mask. A few even spoke of their worries of physical violence, as such instances were being shared in their group chats on social media.
On March 2, Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s office sent a memorandum titled ‘Coronavirus Update’ to all district employees. In one section, it stated: “People wear masks for a variety of reasons, including to avoid pollen and air pollution and for cultural and social reasons. We should not judge someone for wearing a mask or assume they are sick.”
While Mayor Bowser’s efforts to prevent discrimination were clearly felt and have been applaudable throughout the pandemic, I couldn’t help but question why the issue framed in a cultural, rather than a scientific way. In my opinion, these statements only bring attention the certain cultures in a negative way during an already sensitive time.
Few countries in the Asia-Pacific implemented effective and efficient policies in the battle against Covid-19 on par to that of Taiwan, New Zealand, and South Korea. Even Hongkongers were without much support from public health policies initially, but they knew the use of surgical masks as a valid and reliable measure to flatten the curve.
When we attribute practices like wearing masks to culture or certain ethnicities or communities, it incurs a social and monetary cost to the impacted group. I understand the argument that surgical masks should be saved for medical professionals and front-line workers, but more clarity about preventative measures may have prompted the pivot to handmade masks all the much sooner (and consequently bring down infection numbers).
Of course, the masks issue is only one small part of the problem. It is oversimplified to say that ethnocentrism is affecting the U.S. government’s slow response to establishing various protocols to prevent the spread of Covid-19. But it can’t be denied that it has missed a crucial period for containing the pandemic, which should prompt policymakers to reflect on the situation and be open to learning from other countries.
Caption: Washington D.C.’s central business district on March 13, 2020, soon after the Trump Administration declared the Covid-19 pandemic to be a national emergency. Photo courtesy of Alex Tsang.
About the Author
Alex has been a Registered Social Worker in Hong Kong for over 15 years and is a Licensed Social Work Associate for Washington, D.C. He has worked in several NGOs throughout his career, tackling issues from youth services to helping families in crisis. Alex is currently a Social Services Coordinator at Terrific, Inc., a temporary emergency residential resource institute for families in crisis.