The coronavirus is our generation’s distorted empathy quotient. As this life-threatening disease ravages low-income and minority communities, it becomes the world’s responsibility to protect our society’s most vulnerable. And from the mass-anxiety of COVID-19, the best and worst of society has bled into our daily lives. On one hand, GoFundMe is flooded with pages raising money for coronavirus victims. Young teenagers are distributing groceries in working-class neighborhoods while retweeting instructional videos for public safety. But the less endearing side to this narrative is also the most difficult to confront; Coronavirus concerns are being transformed into socio-political dog whistles for xenophobia and hate crimes.
Since the outbreak in January, New York City alone has reported 248 cases of race-based discrimination. On March 14th, a young man stabbed a family of three because they were of Asian-American descent and thus ‘spreading the virus’. A Chinese-American couple in Minnesota reported finding a derogatory and racist note left on their door. Without necessary precautions, our country may succumb to paranoia and racism before it caves into COVID-19.
To discuss the implication of such violence, I had a chat with 7th grader, Arin Parsa, a Davidson Young Scholar and founder of Teens for Vaccines. A strong proponent for public health and safety, Arin reached out to OCA, a national organization dedicated to preserving the rights of Asian-American Pacific Islanders. On March 31, Arin’s Teens for Vaccines co-signed OCA’S letter to President Trump, the FBI, and the DOJ demanding the urgent creation of a Task Force via Executive Order. This Task Force, Arin hopes, will allow the FBI to increase data collection and the DOJ to prioritize prosecutions against COVID-19 hate crimes. But his efforts extend well beyond preventing prejudice. Deeply concerned about PPE shortages (Personal Protective Equipment) for health care staff and senior citizens, Arin is raising awareness for sophomore Aditya Indla’s GoFundMe campaign to 3D Print Face Masks for healthcare professionals. When we spoke with Arin about his efforts, he discussed both his inspiration and ambitions for the near future.
KN: First of all, your contributions to public health and safety amid the COVID-19 outbreak are absolutely amazing. What drew you to establishing Teens For Vaccines?
Arin Parsa: Thank you for the kind words! I founded Teens for Vaccines in August 2019 when herd immunity in California was falling dangerously below 95%, a risk for yet another measles outbreak. The bill, SB 276, had to be pushed through to stop fraudulent medical exemptions to vaccines.
I was inspired by Ethan Lindenberger, an Ohio teen, who fearlessly testified in Congress about his decision to vaccinate himself despite his anti-vax mother’s beliefs. I spent my summer in NY at a research camp to truly understand what makes people anti-science. I found that, although skepticism was legitimate during the smallpox era, it had no standing in the modern world. Many are swayed by misinformation on social media about vaccine safety and vaccine ingredients (e.g. derivatives of pork, fetal strain from the 1960s), spread by a highly vocal anti-vax minority funded by alternative medicine practitioners and anti-government interests. Millions are being made by peddling dietary supplements as a replacement for vaccines. Sure, science isn’t perfect, and there are rare cases when vaccines are not suitable, but deliberately misleading vulnerable parents and religious communities, putting entire neighborhoods at risk, is deplorable. Over 140,000 have died from measles globally when we have a vaccine for it. The COVID-19 pandemic is a wake-up call for all of us.
KN: For those who are unaware of your cause, would you like to explain the purpose of Teens For Vaccines? As the response to the coronavirus develops, what is the group’s primary goal for the future?
Arin Parsa: Teens for Vaccines is about educating teens on vaccine safety and minor consent laws from trusted sources, and connecting teen advocates worldwide. I recently connected with an HPV Vaccine advocate from Ireland!
Education empowers us from falling prey to misinformation and rhetoric of medical freedom and anti-government messages. Amplifying the voices of immunization coalitions, doctors, and epidemiologists is a huge endeavor, whether in our local communities or through social media. In fact, as we speak, anti-vaxxers are denying the COVID pandemic, questioning social distancing, and peddling false cures.
Teens for Vaccines is also anti-hate since a lot of teens like Ethan face dire threats when they go against the anti-vax lobby. A huge realization I had a few weeks ago was the extreme racism suffered by Asians. Teens feeling isolated, alienated, spit on, hit, yelled at, and attacked is not good for their mental health. Suicide rates among the teen demographic are at dangerous levels. Teens for Vaccines is first and foremost about teen health, and I sought out OCA – Asian Pacific American Advocates, a national organization to co-sign their letter and demand action from President Trump, FBI, and DOJ.
KN: What do you hope to accomplish with the creation of an Anti-Asian Hate Task Force via an Executive Order? Why a Task Force, specifically?
Arin Parsa: A Task Force will put a light on the escalating violence against Asians, sending a very strong signal throughout America that we will not tolerate the insidious hate that is riding on the coattails of this pandemic. Being a history student, I know racism is a deep-rooted belief. As much as we want to change people through messages of empathy and solidarity, sometimes only fear of consequences will stop such people in their tracks. A federal task force, working together with local law enforcement, can bring in swift action in collaboration with the FBI’s deep data collection programs, and DOJ prioritizing prosecuting hate crimes.
KN: Do you think government authorities are not taking swift action in ensuring the security of minority communities — including Asian-Americans — during this outbreak? How do you think their action — or lack of it — impacts the current socio-political climate?
Arin Parsa: No one realized how quickly deep-rooted racism would come to the surface. It is not that the government isn’t doing anything about it: the FBI has warned of a surge. President Trump, after having said “Chinese Virus” tweeted that he didn’t intend to use it derogatorily. But, it is clear that more needs to be done than just condemning the acts.
The Asian demographic is a huge contributor to America’s scientific and technological advancements. Lack of immediate action can lead to an extremely fractured America and potential intellectual drain out of America.
KN: Despite the mass-anxiety of a global pandemic, how do teens cross boundaries and establish solidarity with other ethnicities and groups?
Arin Parsa: The power of the internet can truly be harnessed in these times. Joining diverse groups through social media of their choice, whether it is Discord, Slack, Facebook, Twitter, or Reddit, we can reach out and understand others. Teens can join the r/StopAntiAsianRacism, follow @BurntRiceBunch to show support to Asian teens who are suffering. Empathy is about listening and can be really powerful, so responding with thoughtful comments can go a long way. I also welcome everyone to TeenOpinions.org to write and show solidarity. Music is a universal language, so joining online concerts such as One World: Together at home on April 18 can build a feeling of togetherness. Locally, in our communities, we can make a difference too. Even a hand wave and a smile to the ones in your neighborhood can be extremely uplifting.
KN: It’s wonderful that you’re so involved and politically self-aware. Any advice for other teenagers who want to support society’s most vulnerable during this difficult time?
Arin Parsa: Thank you. First and foremost, respecting the shelter-in-place orders itself is a show of support to those who are most vulnerable. Protecting ourselves is protecting others. Checking out state and county websites are great places to know how we can help: sewing masks (with mom’s help if needed) or using a 3D printer if you have one, creating care packages, writing thank you emails to hospitals, making yard signs of hope, doing grocery runs for our elderly neighbors, or simply calling a senior center and enquiring are ways we can help. Having a sense of purpose and togetherness can help us get through these difficult times.
Kanchan Naik is a junior at The Quarry Lane School in Dublin, CA. Aside from being a Student Intern for India Currents, she is the editor-in-chief of her school’s news-zine The Roar. She is also the Teen Poet Laureate of Pleasanton and uses her role to spread a love of poetry in her community.