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Asian Americans in South lack COVID resources found in N.Y. and L.A. Here's who's helping.

From Houston to Atlanta, AAPI organizations prepare for full reopening with new initiatives to support small businesses, boost testing and tackle hate crimes.
Image: A man is tested for coronavirus from his vehicle and volunteers gather at a food distribution site as coronavirus spores loom.
NBC News

Every week, roughly 100 Asian immigrants and refugees pull up to a health center in metro Atlanta to get tested for COVID-19. But the drive-through site, operated by a local nonprofit, provides more than just nasal swabs.

Since mid-June, when the number of cases in Georgia began to spike, testing requests have grown substantially, especially from low-income seniors with limited English skills and knowledge about the disease. At the Cosmo Health Center, operated by the nonprofit the Center for Pan Asian Community Services, they receive a one-page informational flyer, translated into their native language, on how to practice prevention and deal with symptoms. Bilingual health care providers, sometimes with help from interpreters, then walk clients through the testing process and conduct follow-up calls once the results are out.

“The people we serve aren’t seeing PSAs on national media,” Victoria Huynh, the vice president of CPACS, told NBC Asian America. “So we’ve become interpreters and translators who help bridge immigrant communities to mainstream services.”

Center for Pan Asian Community Services in Atlanta offers a drive-thru COVID-19 testing.
Center for Pan Asian Community Services in Atlanta offers a drive-thru COVID-19 testing.Center for Pan Asian Community Services

The organization is representative of Asian American and Pacific Islander communities in the South that lack proper resources. Nearly 4 million AAPIs, roughly a quarter of the group’s total population, live in the 16 Southern states, making them the fastest-growing Asian cohort anywhere in the country. But compared to residents of bigger, older enclaves in Los Angeles and New York, Southern Asians tend to be first-generation immigrants and refugees who face greater language and health care barriers. Due to a lack of media attention and political power, they are often neglected by elected officials, some of whom have churned out a steady stream of anti-immigration laws.

AAPI receiving the “crumbs” of funding in Georgia

The CPACS-run Cosmo Health Center is one of the only federally qualified clinics in the South focusing on underprivileged AAPI residents. In the area of mass-testing, it has filled a critical coverage gap: more than a third of Atlanta’s quarter-million Asian residents have low English proficiency. Many people, as a result, have no idea how widely the virus has spread, where to get tested or how much it would cost. CPACS conducts phone outreach to clients and advertises its free testing program in ethnic media, where older residents get their information.

“The immigrant and refugee community we serve are getting the crumbs of funding that’s coming to Georgia,” Huynh said. Cosmo Health Center could not scale testing capacity even as requests rose, she noted, because the state prioritizes supplying testing kits and personal protective gear to hospitals and bigger clinics over smaller ones based in AAPI neighborhoods.

Center for Pan Asian Community Services in Atlanta offers a food pantry service.
Center for Pan Asian Community Services in Atlanta offers a food pantry service.Center for Pan Asian Community Services

For social services groups, combating anti-Asian hate and addressing language needs have become critical as coronavirus cases have exploded across the region. Because AAPIs are underrepresented and underheard, Southern states provide virtually no Asian-language assistance for public health, financial, and voting services.

In Gwinnett County, a region of Metro Atlanta that’s home to Georgia’s largest AAPI population, the language barrier has also affected the small business owners that CPACS serves. Since April, the group has organized two webinars, with the Small Business Development Center, to help people navigate the labyrinthine Paycheck Protection Program. During the livestreams, which drew more than 250 AAPI business owners, consultants explained the loan application and forgiveness process, and answered questions in English while CPACS staff provided real-time translations in Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese.

Center for Pan Asian Community Services in Atlanta offers a food pantry service.
Center for Pan Asian Community Services in Atlanta offers a food pantry service.Center for Pan Asian Community Services

Invisible and increasing poverty for Southeast Asian Americans in New Orleans

The share of AAPIs living in poverty has grown more quickly in the South than anywhere else in the country, according to a report from Asian American Advancing Justice. Part of this can be chalked up to the region’s sizable refugee population from Southeast Asia.

“Asians here are pretty invisible, and they stay to themselves,” said Jacqueline Thanh, the executive director of Vietnamese-American Young Leaders’ Association of New Orleans. “We have to band together to provide mutual aid.”

Many of the Vietnamese refugees who arrived by boat in New Orleans in the 1970s are farmers and fishermen. As the pandemic devastated the food supply chain, VAYLA collaborated with the VEGGI Farmers Cooperative to deliver fresh produce directly from Vietnamese farms to homes in the Village de L’Est neighborhood, a food desert where a large share of the city’s 14,000 Vietnamese residents live.

The converging chaos of the pandemic and the mass protests against police brutality has put AAPI activists on the path to addressing both anti-Asian hate and anti-Black bias.

Like in much of the country, race relations in New Orleans can be perilously fraught. An undercurrent of distrust and xenophobia runs through the Black and Vietnamese communities, two indigent minority groups that have, for decades, competed for resources, Thanh said. In May, VAYLA launched a series of storytelling workshops to facilitate community healing at a time of immeasurable economic loss and racial strife, and to encourage younger Vietnamese Americans to interrogate the anti-Black narratives embedded in their history.

Combatting an increase in racial tension in Texas

In Texas, where 1.5 million Asian Americans live, there have been 63 reported incidents of anti-Asian hate from March to July, according to a report by the coalition Stop AAPI Hate. One assailant stabbed a family with two young children thinking they were carriers of the virus. Though the figure hasn’t visibly accelerated since a tsunami of new COVID-19 cases slammed the state, AAPIs remain in a very vulnerable position, said Debbie Chen, executive director of the Houston chapter of OCA-Asian Pacific American Advocates.

“Houston is experiencing an impact from COVID-19 in two ways,” she said. “Everyone is experiencing the business and restaurant shutdowns, but we also have the drop in oil prices. That creates an environment where people are frustrated and it’s easier to look for a scapegoat.”

These compounding economic anxieties have contributed to a rise in racial tensions across industries. To protect Asian families and businesses against future attacks, OCA teamed up with various foundations and community leaders to launch 50 bystander intervention courses starting this month. The goal, Chen said, is to train 50,000 people, including college students, oil workers, corporate professionals and churchgoers.

At the same time, the organization wants to foster a greater understanding within the AAPI community about the intersectionality of racial justice and anti-Asian hate. Through next June, the group will be hosting virtual film screenings and panels every month to explore pivotal moments in U.S. civil rights history. Some chosen documentaries include “The Chinese Exclusion Act;” “Delano Manongs,” about labor organizer Larry Itliong and the Filipino farm workers who organized the Delano Grape Strike; and “Freedom Summer,” about the 1964 campaign to integrate Mississippi’s segregated political system.

“We all carry these biases within ourselves,” Chen said. “We want to address colorism within our own community and spark a broader dialogue through art.”

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