Health care workers are on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic, risking their lives to protect Americans from illness and even death.
Among them are countless Asian American medical professionals, serving as doctors, nurses, pharmacists, lab technicians and more.
But as they work around the clock to stop the virus from spreading, many are having to confront another danger: hate.
Misplaced blame for the coronavirus pandemic has made Asian Americans a target for increased harassment and even violence. In fact, an analysis by the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, found that anti-Asian hate crimes in 16 of the largest US cities and counties rose by 164% in the first quarter of 2021 compared to the same period the year before.
Here is what Asian American health care workers have to say about what it feels like fighting two viruses at once:
Kathleen Begonia, 34, is a Filipino American registered nurse and a specialists in nursing informatics in Floral Park, New York.
She said the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes makes her feel unsafe. Begonia has stopped taking public transportation and carries pepper spray and a personal alarm everywhere she goes.
“I actually signed up to take self-defense classes because I still carry my childhood experiences of racism with me,” Begonia told CNN. “I don’t trust that anyone else can take care of me, not even police, so I make sure that I can defend myself. I run every day and keep fit in case I need to defend myself.”
Begonia said she’s experienced racism all of her life. As a child, she noticed people would yell racial slurs at her family and throw garbage on their lawn. Someone even ignited fireworks in their mailbox, she said.
Begonia and her parents are all nurses working on the front lines of the pandemic. She said they treat all patients without regard to race, religion or beliefs. She’s disheartened that not everyone feels the same.
“Thinking about how we are nurses taking care of anyone who comes into the hospital — it can be infuriating. The very people who insult us in public can also become vulnerable themselves and require our care,” Begonia said. “So, when I see people hurting the Asian American community, it saddens me because we are also your health care providers.”
David Wu, 56, is a Chinese American and the executive director of the Pui Tak Center in Chicago, Illinois.
Among his many duties, Wu assists with Covid-19 testing and vaccination distribution within the Chinatown community, which was hit particularly hard due to ignorance and xenophobia.
“Businesses in Chinatown was significantly slowing down because people thought it would be the first place where the virus would appear,” Wu said. “We wanted to give employees from Chinatown who were laid off and stressed out a place in their community, a place they can trust, where they can get a vaccine.”
For some Chinese Americans, it can be scary trying to get vaccinated outside of the Chinatown community, where hateful people could target them, Wu said.
So far, Wu and the Pui Tak Center have distributed more than 2,500 vaccine doses to city residents, he said. And while community members are grateful, he knows many are hurting and living in fear.
“A lot of the time Asians don’t want to make a big deal or draw attention to themselves, but we want people to know they can share their stories and the challenges they faced,” he said. “Voicing the struggles of being Asian in this country is the first step.”
Atsuko Koyama is a Japanese American emergency medicine physician in Phoenix, Arizona.
She has spent much of the last year treating children with Covid-19, some of whom lost parents to the virus. All the while she has been concerned about the rise in anti-Asian crimes.
“It’s sad this is our life,” Koyama told CNN. “I have Asian friends in health care who work in San Francisco and New York who are stressed about going to work and friends who are on heightened awareness in their daily lives. It’s a stressful way to live.”
Koyama said she’s faced discrimination and bias throughout her career — even in subtle ways, like being asked to use a nickname instead of her full name.
“Being an Asian American woman especially can be difficult,” Koyama said. “Throughout American history, Asian women have been bought to the US and trafficked for sex, contributing to the fetishization of women in our community. There’s a long history of it and it really affects the way people see us as Asian women.”
Along with a rise in hate crimes, police brutality and Covid-19 mortality which disproportionately impacts the Black community “inspired and moved” her to become more involved in in anti-racism education in her field, she said. She’s been teaching colleagues about systemic racism against Asian Americans and other communities of color.
“All Asian people are unique, we bring our own histories, our family histories, our personal histories, and our talents to the communities where we live and work,” Koyama said. “It’s also imperative we don’t erase other people’s stories while highlighting our own struggles. We need to be listening and uplifting one another in our communities so in the end, we’re all benefiting.”
George Liu is a Chinese American internist and endocrinologist in New York City, as well as the president of the Chinese American Independent Practice Association (CAIPA).
Liu has been working tirelessly to ensure the city’s Asian American communities receive equal medical treatment throughout the pandemic.
Through his work with CAIPA, he helped establish a mobile center that tested more than 3,000 people in Brooklyn, Flushing, Chinatown, and Elmhurst for Covid-19. CAIPA says it was the city’s first mobile testing center for the virus.
CAIPA also donated personal protective equipment to 55 hospitals and nursing homes throughout New York, and established a food pantry in Chinatown, where 500 families receive food twice a month.
Liu has done his best to counter the hate targeting Asian Americans.
In April, he led a group of more than 100 doctors, nurses and other medical professionals at a Stop Asian Hate rally in Foley Square. More than 20,000 people attended the event, he said.
“We’ve been discriminated against for years, since the 1800’s and far before the coronavirus, although it definitely has made it worse,” Liu told CNN. “These situations cannot be tolerated. We are all human beings doing our best to support our country and our community, and we deserve respect.”
Cherry Wongtrakool, 50, is a Thai American pulmonary critical care physician in Atlanta, Georgia.
She said it has been “incredibly difficult” to witness all the violence against Asian Americans. It became even harder, she added, when former President Donald Trump began using such terms as “Chinese virus” and “kung flu,” which seemingly blamed Asians for the pandemic.
“It was demoralizing to see politicians and media outlets talk about the ‘Kung flu’ and spread misinformation when health care workers were overwhelmed with Covid-19 patients in the hospital and trying to do their best for the patients,” Wongtrakool told CNN. “That divisive speech and misinformation was harmful and continues to be harmful the more it is perpetuated.”
Wongtrakool said she’s come to expect micro aggression from patients — some assume she doesn’t speak English or isn’t actually American — but the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes has been “horrifying.”
“I used to not have to worry about this, even in this diverse, multicultural city I have moments where I pause and rethink what I’m doing and where I’m going,” she said
Kathy Wu, 44, is a Chinese American nurse practitioner at an out-patient oncology center in New York. She volunteered to work with Covid-19 patients during the pandemic.
Many hospitals redeployed staff after experiencing a surge in cases. Wu chose to help by testing people for the virus and treating patients in need of supportive care like intravenous hydration.
“It was a scary time but a rewarding time as well. I don’t think any one of us when we were in school and in training ever expected to be part of a pandemic crisis,” Wu told CNN. “The 7 p.m. clap for frontline workers every night brought out so many conflicting feelings for me. I felt simultaneously uplifted but burdened as well, as I felt the weight of the pandemic squarely on our shoulders.”
That’s not the only burden Wu felt. Following a rise in anti-Asian hate crimes, she began to worry for her safety.
“I had a sinking feeling as soon as I heard President Trump utter the words “Chinese virus,” Wu said. “I was scared about what that meant for us Asian Americans. I braced myself for the uptick in anti-Asian violence.”
“I’m exhausted already from working the past year dealing with the repercussions of Covid, and now I have to watch my back constantly because we’re being used as scapegoats for a virus that had nothing to do with us?”
Wu has started carrying a tactical flashlight to help her fend off an attacker.
“It should not be like this,” she said.
Charlton Rhee is a Korean American nursing home administrator in Flushing, a predominately Asian American community in Queens, New York.
Rhee manages the Covid-19 units at Union Plaza Care Center, where he distributes personal protective equipment and facilitates FaceTime meetings for families with loved ones in quarantine.
Rhee lost both his parents — his only family — to the coronavirus.
“What was surreal was after providing FaceTime for families, I myself had to FaceTime with a concierge on the Covid unit at the hospital to say goodbye to my mother. I was not allowed to be with her, and she passed alone,” he said.
Rhee saw many people die from the virus and experienced an enormous amount of heartache. But the hate he experienced as an Asian American made it worse, he said.
“It was brutal. I cried every night,” he said. “On top of the effects of the pandemic, I have to be super careful if I venture out to go shopping or consider twice before taking public transportation because for some reason, I am a target.”
As a lifelong New Yorker, Rhee said he’s “mortified” by the “blatant hatred” directed at Asians because of the pandemic.
“Asian Americans are your neighbors, we are your coworkers, we are business owners, teachers, doctors, veterans, lawyers. We are your church, mosque, temple members,” Rhee said.
“We are exhausted fighting Covid every single day and we are a part of your community, not outside of it. We are all Americans, and only together, can we get through this pandemic.”