Immigrant communities throughout Oregon say they are experiencing a sense of fear about the spreading of coronavirus — a state of worry that’s being heightened because many do not speak or read English as a first language.
Because of this, many in Oregon’s immigrant communities are resorting to social media as their primary source of information.
Organizations like VOZ Workers’ Rights Education Project, Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste (PCUN), Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon (APANO), African Family Holistic Health Organization (AFHHO) and Unite Oregon, have taken it upon themselves to educate and inform their communities regarding the COVID-19 pandemic. The organizations all said the top frustration is getting information and resources readily available in languages other than English.
VOZ executive director Osmani Alcaraz-Ochoa said as the seriousness of COVID-19 has progressed, staff at VOZ have been educating laborers who are still coming in seeking work in construction, landscaping and moving companies. But there’s been a sharp drop-off in employment in the past few weeks.
“They see how they can potentially be impacted as immigrant workers and workers of color being more at risk, workers that don’t have medical leave, sick paid leave, paid time off, or aren’t able to work remotely because they don’t have those kinds of jobs since they are temporary and day-to-day,” Ochoa said. “They see themselves as very vulnerable.”
Alcaraz-Ochoa said VOZ has created a GoFundMe campaign to ensure workers can access funds for medical care, sick leave, housing and food. They are also informing people about the importance of social distancing and other preventive measures to slow the pandemic.
Social media saves the day
Getting news and updates from staff members or local news outlets has been working for some but others are having a difficult time finding trustworthy sources. PCUN executive director Reyna Lopez said the mostly non-English-speaking Latino farmworkers and tree planters her group works with are relying on social media platforms like Facebook to translate and share news within their communities.
“Our digital posts on Facebook, the ones in Spanish have been the ones that have gotten the most clicks, the most shares, the most engagement on those posts,” Lopez said.
But Lopez points to another challenge they face, which is getting news translated in a timely manner. For now they are relying on Facebook.
Another challenge that appears to be especially big in Oregon’s immigrant communities: missed work shifts. That was starting to happen even before Feb. 28 when Oregon’s first COVID-19 case was reported. Lopez said workers in processing plants have been informing her of reduced work hours as she said China’s purchasing of canned fruits from Oregon slowed down. Some are now being asked to take time off with no pay.
“They’re being asked to take these days and not expect any pay for these hours and talking with community members they’re saying, ‘Well that’s just the way it is, there’s not really a lot we can do about it,’ people are kind of accepting that this is the new norm,” Lopez said.
PCUN is asking government leaders to come up with solutions where they can expand employment insurance and extend unemployment insurance benefits to these workers.
Other immigrant communities that are facing a similar problem in terms of getting news translated in their language have figured out a way without waiting for local news.
APANO community organizer Wanna Lei said the Chinese American community is mainly getting its information from WeChat, a Chinese social media app that offers multipurpose messaging and has an estimated 1 billion users. Lei said they post and update every day and get information from local government leaders and translate the news, so they can quickly share it with others.
But Lei said although the community has been informed for months now, they are also very stressed out.
“Earlier we were really concerned with our families in China … right now it is our turn,” Lei said.
The novel coronavirus’ initial outbreak in China means Oregon’s Chinese American community has been well aware of the virus for months. And now that it has spread to the rest of the world, Lei said families feel that the roles have switched. Now, families in China are concerned with their families in the United States and fear that people are not taking it seriously enough.
“They really worry, and some people actually talked with me and they want to encourage people in our community to have more people wear masks,” Lei said. Members of Oregon’s Chinese American community said more needs to be done to protect themselves and others in the community.
Lei also said some people are confused on what to do after losing their jobs because of the coronavirus and are having trouble finding resources online for support, especially with filling out unemployment forms.
Racial rhetoric and harmful narratives
Associate director at APANO, Duncan Hwang, said the Chinese American community is also facing a spike in microaggressions and racism toward Chinese immigrants. In an era of already-rising xenophobia, Asian Americans in Oregon and beyond have been disturbed by what they’re hearing the coronavirus called. A CBS News reporter tweeted that a White House official had referred to it as the “kung-flu” and President Trump has taken to calling it the “Chinese virus.”
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A close up of President Donald J. Trump’s notes are seen where the word “Corona” was replaced with “Chinese” Virus as he speaks with his coronavirus task force in response to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic during a briefing in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House on Thursday, March 19, 2020 in Washington, DC.
“Before the outbreak locally, there was a lot of xenophobia, in terms of reduced business and over racist comments, but now it’s kind of more widespread … you do see it in national news like the federal government calling it the Wuhan coronavirus or the Wu-flu,” Hwang said.
Hwang said calling COVID-19 other names is creating a harmful narrative.
“For a lot of Asian American folks, we’ve been hearing about Coronavirus and talking really nonstop about it since really last November and December. … It’s been going on much more deeply and much longer and that’s really kind of impacted peoples’ lives here even before there were cases in the U.S. Folks were afraid to go out and socialize and visit shops and restaurants and things like that,” Hwang said.
As the fear of getting COVID-19 or being ordered to shelter in place has begun to sink in for people, those who own businesses have been left with difficult decisions.
Long Nguyen, owner of Mekha Grill, said he doesn’t want to close as he worries about how he will pay his mortgage and rent, but Gov. Kate Brown’s recent restrictions on restaurants has left him no choice.
“I feel shocked, really shocked, and I don’t know what to do to be honest with you. I can’t think of anything right now,” Nguyen said. “I saw a lot of customers stay away from, especially, Asian restaurants. … I don’t think it’s discrimination, but in general, because we’re Asian.”
Nguyen was not aware of Brown’s announcement until the night before it was to be put in place.
“I will fight, whatever I can do to survive,” Nguyen said. “Even though we have community, in the restaurant business everybody stands on their own.”
Fear of the unknown
Unite Oregon works with many different communities across the state to build a unified intercultural movement for justice. Executive director Kayse Jama said many families are afraid, especially those who live in rural parts of Oregon. He said they have been more difficult to reach as the COVID-19 situation develops.
“What we are hearing from families is fear and unknowns and challenges that they have because they are already struggling with a lack of health care in rural areas, particularly, as well as in Portland,” Jama said.
Jama echoed a lot of what other immigrant communities are facing, as information sharing has been limited, especially with those in rural Oregon. Jama said Unite Oregon is fielding a lot of questions that they’re struggling to find answers to.
“A lot of questions around how to support their families, a lot of questions about schools and how they can support their kids and the education system, what’s going to happen to me if I lose my job. … Those are some of the challenges they are facing,” Jama said.
Joy Mulumba is a supervisor with African Family Holistic Health Organization, which serves over 200 families in the Portland metro area that speak Swahili, a Bantu language spoken in Tanzania, Kenya and other parts of East Africa. He said the organization has a similar challenge as he does not know when they will receive help from the state.
AFHHO has also been using social media and messaging apps like WhatsApp to share information, but some of the elders in their communities struggle to use new technology and so Mulumba has no choice but to make face-to-face contact with them to update them with what is going on in the news.
“I’ve been watching YouTube videos about how to be responsible in a pandemic,” Mulumba said. “I realized the knowledge and the skill sets of what I have right now is not equipped to handle this, but I should not be just the only person; it should be a community effort.”
He said his goal is to come up with a preparedness kit that would focus on health resources that workers can use for themselves and for the community.
OPB’s Kaylee Domzalski contributed to this report.