Asian American health workers fight virus and racist attacks

May 6, 2021, 10:17 AM | Updated: May 7, 2021, 1:51 pm

NEW YORK (AP) — Medical student Natty Jumreornvong has a vaccine and protective gear to shield her from the coronavirus. But she couldn’t avoid exposure to the anti-Asian bigotry that pulsed to the surface after the pathogen was first identified in China.

Psychiatry patients have called her by a racist slur for the disease, she said. A bystander spat at the Thai-born student to “go back to China” as she left a New York City hospital where she’s training.

And as she walked there in scrubs Feb. 15, a man came up to her, snarled “Chinese virus,” took her cellphone and dragged her on a sidewalk, said Jumreornvong, who reported the attack to police. The investigation is ongoing.

For health care workers of Asian and Pacific Islander descent, “it seems like we’re fighting multiple battles at the same time — not just COVID-19, but also racism,” says Jumreornvong, a student at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have faced a tide of harassment and attacks in many settings during the pandemic. But those in health care are feeling the particular, jarring anguish of being racially targeted because of the virus while toiling to keep people from dying of it.

“People in my community have gone from being a health care hero to, somehow, a scapegoat,” said Dr. Michelle Lee, a radiology resident in New York. She rallied 100 white-coat-clad medical workers in March to denounce anti-Asian hate crimes.

“We’re not bringing you the virus,” said Lee, who recalls strangers on the street spitting on her twice in the last year. “We are literally trying to help you get rid of the virus.”

People of Asian and Pacific Islander descent make up about 6% to 8% of the U.S. population but a greater share of some health care professions, including around 20% of non-surgeon physicians and pharmacists and 12% to 15% of surgeons, physical therapists and physician assistants, according to federal statistics.

Before the pandemic, studies found that 31% to 50% of doctors of Asian heritage experienced on-the-job discrimination ranging from patients refusing their care to difficulty finding mentors. That’s a lower proportion than Black physicians, but higher than Hispanic and white doctors, according to a 2020 study that reviewed existing research. In a separate 2020 study of medical residents, all those of Asian heritage said patients had quizzed them about their ethnicity.

Columbia University medical student Hueyjong “Huey” Shih recalls being confronted with “a lot of assumptions, all boiled into one very inappropriate question” from a colleague in a hospital: Was Shih an only child because of China’s former one-child policy?

The Maryland-born Shih, whose family hails from Taiwan, said the colleague apologized after being set straight. Writing in the health news site Stat, he and medical students Jesper Ke and Kate E. Lee implored health institutions to include Asian Americans’ and Pacific Islanders’ experiences in anti-racism training.

For generations, Asian Americans have contended with being perceived as “perpetual foreigners” in a country with a history of treating them as threats. Officials wrongly blamed San Francisco’s Chinatown for an 1870s smallpox outbreak, barred many Chinese immigrants under the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and forced Japanese Americans into internment camps even as tens of thousands of their relatives served in the U.S. military during World War II.

During the pandemic, former President Donald Trump repeatedly called COVID-19 the “China virus” and by other terms that activists say fanned anger at Asian Americans.

Police reports of anti-Asian hate crimes in 26 big U.S. cities and counties shot up 146% last year, while hate crimes overall rose 2%, according to California State University, San Bernardino’s Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism. The advocacy group Stop AAPI Hate fielded nearly 3,800 reports of assault, harassment and discrimination from mid-March 2020 through the end of February — before a gunman killed eight people, including six of Asian heritage, at Atlanta-area massage businesses in March.

The statistics don’t break out health care workers among the victims.

The escalation “makes racism seem a lot scarier than the virus” to Dr. Amy Zhang, an anesthesiology resident at the University of Washington’s hospitals.

“It’s a constant fear. You never know when you’re going to get targeted,” she says.

Early in the pandemic, she came face-to-face with the risk of COVID-19 while intubating patients. And face-to-face with racism when a white man on the street muttered a vulgarity at her about China and “giving us smallpox,” then started following her while yelling racial epithets and sexual threats until she got inside the hospital, she said.

“Despite the fact that I clawed myself out of poverty to chase the American dream, despite the fact that I can and have saved lives under stressful conditions, none of this protects me from racist vitriol,” Zhang wrote in Crosscut, a Pacific Northwest news site. She’s a daughter of Chinese immigrants who worked long hours for low wages.

These days, New York physician assistant student Ida Chen carries pepper spray all the time, sets her cellphone to let all her friends know her location and doesn’t roam far alone. For a time, she hid the roots of her dark brown hair under a hat so only the dyed blonde ends would show.

She started taking those precautions after a man biked up to her on a Manhattan street in March 2020 and sneered that he’d be “into you, but I don’t want to get the coronavirus,” then followed her while hollering slurs until she called 911, she said.

“I went into medicine thinking: I treat people with the best intention possible,” said Chen, who has Chinese heritage. “It hurts that someone’s not reciprocating that kind of empathy and good intentions.”

Chen and some others say the Georgia shootings propelled them to speak out about what they see as longtime minimization of anti-Asian racism.

“The whole reason I became a doctor is to help my community,” says Lee, a daughter of South Korean immigrants with no other physicians in the family. “If I don’t speak up for my community, what have they sacrificed — done everything they’ve done — for?”

Jumreornvong, who identifies as queer, said she had experienced discrimination before. But it felt different to be targeted because of her race, and in a country where she pictured the American dream as trying “to make it a better place for everyone and yourself.”

“For a moment, I was a little pessimistic about whether or not the people want me here,” she said. But she focused on how colleagues rallied around her, how the hospital expressed support, how patients have shown appreciation for her work.

“I still do believe in the best of America,” she said.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

AP

FILE - In this  July 10, 2021 file photo, Victor Ruiz Valencia removes his hat during the burial of...
Associated Press

Amid killings and COVID, Mexico’s Yaqui people get pledges

MEXICO CITY (AP) — Mexico’s Yaqui people have been hit by a wave of killings and coronavirus deaths, so the country’s long-awaited public apology for centuries of abuses Tuesday rang a little hollow. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador had hoped the ceremony would mark a turning point in the woes of what he has described […]
15 hours ago
ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — A Florida man has been sentenced to six years and five months in prison ...
Associated Press

6 years for man who stole lawmakers’ IDs, passed bad checks

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — A Florida man has been sentenced to six years and five months in prison for stealing the identities of local, state and federal officials in a case involving more than $50,000 in fraudulent payments, authorities said. Michael T. Watters, 51, of Ocoee, was sentenced Monday in Orlando federal court, according to […]
15 hours ago
ATLANTA (AP) — A Georgia city did not violate the constitutional rights of a Sons of Confeder...
Associated Press

Court says city can ban Confederate flag in veterans parade

ATLANTA (AP) — A Georgia city did not violate the constitutional rights of a Sons of Confederate Veterans group when it banned the Confederate battle flag from its annual parade honoring veterans of American wars, a federal appeals court ruled Tuesday. Richard Leake and Michael Dean sued Alpharetta, an Atlanta suburb, in August 2019 after […]
15 hours ago
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — The Cherokee Nation and three opioid distributors reached a $75 million ...
Associated Press

Cherokee Nation reaches $75M settlement with drug companies

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — The Cherokee Nation and three opioid distributors reached a $75 million settlement to resolve opioid-related claims against the companies, the tribe and the companies announced Tuesday. The Tahlequah, Oklahoma-based tribe announced the settlement, the largest in Cherokee Nation history, with McKesson Corporation, Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen Drug Corporation. The settlement will […]
15 hours ago
DETROIT (AP) — A judge dismissed a new batch of charges Tuesday in the government’s inv...
Associated Press

Judge slams prosecutors, dismisses genital mutation charges

DETROIT (AP) — A judge dismissed a new batch of charges Tuesday in the government’s investigation of genital mutilation against girls in a Muslim sect, saying prosecutors in Detroit were being vindictive after major courtroom losses. It’s another blow for the government, which broke new ground in 2017 when it charged a Detroit-area doctor with […]
15 hours ago
EAGLE RIVER, Wis. (AP) — The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating a plane cr...
Associated Press

Small plane with 3 aboard crashes in northern Wisconsin

EAGLE RIVER, Wis. (AP) — The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating a plane crash that happened just before noon Tuesday in northern Wisconsin. Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman Emma Duncan said three people were on board the twin-engine Rockwell 690B when it crashed in a swamp 12 miles (19 kilometers) east of Eagle River. The […]
15 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

...
IQ Air

How Poor Air Quality Is Affecting Our Future Athletes

You cannot control your child’s breathing environment 100% of the time, but you can make a huge impact.
...
Swedish Health Services

Special Coverage: National Prostate Cancer Awareness Month

There are a wide variety of treatment options available for men with prostate cancer. The most technologically advanced treatment option in the Northwest is Stereotactic Body Radiation Therapy using the CyberKnife platform.
...
Marysville Police Department

Police Opportunities in a Growing, Supportive Washington Community

Marysville PD is looking for both lateral and entry level officers. Begin or continue your career in law enforcement for a growing, supportive community.
Courtesy of JWatch Photography....
Experience Anacortes

Summer Fun Activities in Anacortes

With minimal travel time required and every activity under the sun, Anacortes is the perfect vacation spot for all ages.
...
By Alaska Airlines

Calling all football fans: follow Russell on the road

Take your Northwest spirit that we’re known for on the road this season with Alaska Airlines.
...
By Marysville Police Department

Police Opportunities in a Growing, Supportive Washington Community

Marysville PD is looking for lateral and entry level officers. Begin or continue your career in law enforcement for a growing, supportive community.
Asian American health workers fight virus and racist attacks