In a time of collective trauma, Arnav Mishra provides a source of healing through his work for senior citizens in the Bay Area. Mishra’s organizing efforts, creating colorful cards and drawings for seniors, is deemed a “work of heart”.
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, 16-year-old Arnav and his younger sister have been busy writing letters and sending their colorful creations to assisted living facilities and hospice centers across California and the country.
After receiving an overwhelming response from grateful seniors, many of whom have been unable to see their own grandchildren in more than a year, Arnav formed the organization Pumpkin Letters and recruited groups of elementary and middle school students to help in his effort. Since April 2020, they have brightened up the days of more than 3,000 seniors with cute cards, letters, and words of encouragement.
“I knew that my grandparents were really missing our visits during the COVID-19 shelter-in-place, so my little sister and I started writing letters and cards and dropping off to them regularly,” said Arnav. “I realized that just like my grandparents, there were so many other grandparents and seniors who couldn’t see their grandkids and were lonely.”
Arnav juggles a full schedule as a guitarist in his school’s rock band, an intern for a Bay Area political campaign, and a student with challenging Advanced Placement (AP) classes. Yet, he remains inspired to continue writing letters to seniors by the responses he receives. He is working to reach even more seniors but needs other students to help in order to expand the effort.
“The demand for these cards and letters from senior homes is overwhelming and he needs more kids involved in this project to help cover even more care homes,” said Arnav’s mother, Ruchika Mishra. “We know there are a lot of kind, compassionate, and creative kids who would love to cheer up lonely seniors.”
Since his project kicked off more than a year ago, 260+ children have been able to send cheer to more than 900 seniors. Many seniors share their cards with others, spreading the love even further.
Letters sent by volunteers (Image provided by Arnav Mishra)
Letters sent by volunteers (Image provided by Arnav Mishra)
Impact of Pumpkin Letters (Image provided by Arnav Mishra)
Impact of Pumpkin Letters (Image provided by Arnav Mishra)
Students ages 8-17, teachers registering their classes, and group home caregivers, can sign up to volunteer or request letters by visiting the Pumpkin Letters website. Interested persons will receive information on how their drawings and letters can help seniors fight loneliness and instructions on where to send their completed work.
Since many schoolchildren are also struggling with limited social interactions with their friends or aren’t attending in-person school due to the health crisis, Pumpkin Letters hosts monthly Zoom meetups where children and teens gather to work together on their art projects, laugh, share ideas, and become inspired by the work of others. These events are often based on themes that are related to the seasons and upcoming holidays. Learn more or sign up for an upcoming meetup atwww.PumpkinLetters.com.
Srishti Prabha is the Managing Editor at India Currents and has worked in low-income/affordable housing as an advocate for children, women, and people of color. She is passionate about diversifying spaces, preserving culture, and removing barriers to equity.
Anti‐Asian hate crimes surged by a staggering 149% in 16 of America’s largest cities, even though overall hate crime dropped by 7% in 2020, according to a fact sheet released by the California State University’s Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism.
With the stabbing of a 36 year Asian man in Chinatown In February, New York leapt to the top of the leaderboard for the most number (28) of racially motivated crimes against people of Asian descent in a major city, followed by Los Angeles (15) and Boston (14), in hate incidents reported to the police.
Data shows that the first spate of hate crimes occurred in March and April ‘amidst a rise in COVID-19 cases and negative stereotyping of Asians relating to the pandemic’.
The brutal spike in attacks on Asian and Pacific Island Americans (particularly seniors) amid an epidemic of anti-Asian violence ,“is a source of grave concern for our community,” said John C Yang, of AAJC. “While battling COVID19, unfortunately Asian Americans have also had to fight a second virus of racism.”
At an ethnic media briefing on February 19, civil rights advocates called for a unified response to counter racial and ethnic divisions, bigotry and incidents of hate.
“What we are experiencing is the America First virus,” declared Jose Roberto Hernandez, Chief of Staff, Koreatown Immigrant Workers Alliance, where hatred is manifesting in a rash of vicious attacks targeting Asian Americans.
STOP AAPI Hate, a national coalition aimed at addressing anti-Asian discrimination, received 2,808 reported incidents of racism and discrimination against Asian Americans across the U.S. between March 19 and December 31, 2020. Sixty nine percent of anti-AAPI attacks occurred in California, followed by New York City (20%), Washington (7%) and Illinois (4%).
According to STOP AAPI Hate, victims reported prejudice incidents that ranged from physical assault (8%), coughing and spitting (6%), to being shunned or avoided (20%). The vast majority (66%) reported verbal assaults.
In another study, hateful comments on social media also reflected racist trends sweeping the Internet. The term Kung Flu spiked in March and July last year in a Google key word search, while an analysis of Poll and Twitter posts from January 2020 saw a similar surge of Sino phobic racial slurs in March.
The most victimized group in the AAPI population – almost 41% – were people of Chinese descent while Koreans, Vietnamese and Filipinos also were targeted.
Another poll, added Yang, reported that 40% of Asian Americans either experienced discrimination or heard someone blame Asia or China for COVID-19. Many of the people who felt threatened are frontline workers in essential jobs at grocery stores, hospitals and community centers and custodial services.
Hate against Asian Americans is not a new phenomenon added Yang, referring to historical fear and prejudice that led to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the incarceration of 120 thousand Japanese Americans during World War 2, and the war on terror after 9/11 that impacted Arab Americans.
Asian Americans are often demonized for being ‘foreigners,’ or carriers of disease, but during the pandemic, said Yang, the ‘need to blame’ someone for the virus has exacerbated those fears and morphed into violence against the Asian American community.
Hateful rhetoric from President Trump, who referred to COVID19 as ‘the China virus, the Wuhan flu, and the China plague’ at political rallies, further inflamed racially motivated violence against Asian Americans.
“That has had a lasting impact”, stated Choi.
Her view was echoed by Manjusha Kulkarni, Executive Director of Pacific Policy and Planning Council, who pointed to “.. a very direct connection between the actions and the words of the former presidents and the administration.” She referred to policies initiated by the former administration to ‘alienate, isolate, and prevent our communities from getting the support they needed, and to reports her organization received, containing ‘the words of the president.’
“Words matter,” said Yang, calling on people to come together to dismantle the contagion of racism and hatred.
AAPI advocates drew the strong support of Marc Morial, President and CEO, National Urban League, who condemned the ‘climate of intolerance which has been created in this nation.” He reiterated his support for AAPI, accountability for perpetrators of violent acts, and commitment to cross cultural understanding “which is central to civil rights in the 21st century.
“Hate anywhere, is hate everywhere,” noted Morial. “We stand against efforts to demonize the Asian American community.”
So how is the nation addressing this issue?
“What we need to work on is establishing the checks and balances in society that grant equal power to everybody,” said Hernandez, “at home, at work, and in the community.” Yang called for a stand against hatred, for witnesses to report incidents, and for bystander intervention training, so people know what do when they witness accounts of hate. He urged setting up dialog at local levels.
At the national level, said Yang, Biden’s national memorandum against AAPI hate is a good start in terms of data collection and better understanding of the hate Asian Americans are facing. But the government needs to invest in communities – in victim response centers, financial resources for victims and cross-community, cross-cultural conversations,” – to break down the barriers of prejudice.
“Often our communities are pitted against each other,” said Kulkarni, “that is how white supremacy works.” She remarked that sometimes AAPI communities tend to turn on one other because of ‘close proximity’ geographically or socio-economically, while too many people in AAPI communities accept the model minority myth or anti-blackness “all too easily.”
Communities need to collaborate to combat this culture of hatred and take responsibility to work on solutions, rather than accept the premises of white supremacy, added Kulkarni. She called for healing rather than division. “We have so much in common …that we should be able to work together for the right, restorative and transformative justice.”
Everyone has a part to play in highlighting this issue. urged Yang. “The virus of racism is very contagious and affects all of our communities. We need to fight that virus together.”
South Asians in the house! — my cousin cheers between mouthfuls of samosa and peanut chutney as Kamala Harris is sworn in as Vice President of the United States on screen. It’s a day as celebratory as it is surreal — especially for the ‘South Asians in the house’, who are scattered across the country watching one of the most unprecedented inaugurations in history. I knew I was going to see a female president or vice-president hold that Bible on camera during my lifetime. The world has seen female presidents and Prime Ministers from Golda Meir to Indira Gandhi to Angela Merkel; the world is growing up, and growing out of the trappings of a patriarchal society. Although we’re late, I knew I would have the honor of watching America catch up.
But watching a South Asian-American woman help shatter America’s legislative glass ceiling was a wholly different honor altogether.
According to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Indian-Americans make up less than 1 percent of the United States’ registered voter base. It’s a fact that’s difficult to forget, considering how under-studied and under-appreciated South Asian Americans are as a voter demographic. Civic engagement organizations have a history of not visiting South Asian American neighborhoods out of fear of ‘mispronouncing their names’. In the past, South Asian-American politicians at the local level have been questioned for their religious or ethnic identities, rather than their qualifications or political stances. Although the 2020 elections have marked a tremendous increase in political participation among our community, historically South Asian Americans have often been under-represented and overlooked at the polls.
The new administration is a game-changer for our community — and not simply because of Kamala Harris. Here are some members of the wave of South Asian Americans introduced by the Biden-Harris administration.
Formerly a content strategist for the Biden-Harris campaign, Garima Verma was named by First Lady Jill Biden as the Digital Director for the Office of the First Lady at the White House. Born in India, Garima grew up in Ohio and the Central Valley of California. Her journey in marketing and brand strategy shows her passion for both civic engagement and digital storytelling, as Garima has worked for major corporations like Universal Pictures Home Entertainment and nonprofits like the St. Joseph Center alike. Hopefully, Garima will bring her unique talent of telling compelling stories through the digital medium to the First Lady’s team.
“While in the entertainment space at both Paramount Pictures and ABC, my passion has always been working on diverse and boundary-pushing content that allows more people to feel seen and heard, and to authentically engage and empower those communities through marketing campaigns,” Garima says. “My ultimate goal is to combine my love of marketing and storytelling with my passion for social impact and advocacy in a meaningful and impactful way.”
Massachusetts-native Neera Tanden has contributed to America’s political landscape for years, from advising Hillary Clinton’s 2016 primary campaign to drafting the Affordable Care Act during the Obama administration. For her work in founding the Center of American Progress (CAP), Tanden was named one of the 25 “Most Influential Women In Washington” by the National Journal in 2012. She has used her platforms to advocate for universal, multi-payer healthcare, and cites her childhood experiences living on welfare as a reason behind her passion for healthcare reform and economic empowerment. As Biden’s pick for budget chief, Tanden hopes to bring her years of political experience to the US Office of Management and Budget.
“After my parents were divorced when I was young, my mother relied on public food and housing programs to get by,” Tanden said in a 2020 tweet. “Now, I’m being nominated to help ensure those programs are secure and ensure families like mine can live with dignity. I am beyond honored.”
Her nomination, however, did not come without controversy. Tanden has been often criticized by her Republican counterparts for her outspoken nature on Twitter, where she fired back at Lindsey Graham for calling her a ‘nut job’ and referred to Mitch McConnell as ‘Moscow Mitch’. Many Republicans criticize Tanden for her ‘partisan’ approach to politics — an ironic appraisal, considering how nearly every politician has contributed to the radioactive battlefield that is Twitter in recent years.
Formerly a senior democracy fellow at the US Agency for International Development, Shanthi Kalathil has been named as the White House’s Coordinator for Democracy and Human Rights in the National Security Council. Kalathil’s years of dedication towards advocating for human rights and worldwide democracy demonstrate her preparedness for this role. She is known for her commitment towards addressing techno-authoritarians, or the role that modern technology plays in reinforcing the rigidity of authoritarianism. In fact, she addresses this phenomenon in her 2003 book, Open Networks, Closed Regimes: The Impact of the Internet on Authoritarian Rule. Within an increasingly digitized society, Kalathil’s careful attention towards the Internet in relation to human rights is certainly a step forward for the White House. She also carefully avoids implicit biases while addressing human rights abuses in other countries, discussing the importance of separating “the Chinese people from the Chinese party-state” in a podcast published by the National Democratic Institute.
“You know one area where I think all democracies have to be careful is in making sure that there is a clear distinction between referring to the Chinese party-state and the Chinese people. Whether it’s the Chinese people within China or people of ethnic Chinese descent all around the world, that would be one area in which I think there does need to be great care”, Kalathil said. “I think in all policy discussions, it’s important to use a scalpel rather than a sledgehammer, to really deal with very specific problems and specific issues that pose a challenge to democracy, but that we shouldn’t conflate broad-based backlash.”
The United States government has a history of intervening in the human rights abuses committed by the other regimes of the world as an effort to maintain peace and justice. Kalathil’s balanced, nuanced approach towards democracy and human rights will certainly enrich her platform.
American diplomat Uzra Zeya has been nominated by the Biden-Harris Administration to serve as the Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights. Like Tanden, Zeya has years of political experience under her belt, as she was the acting assistant Secretary and Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor during the Obama Administration. Before that, she worked in Paris’s Embassy of the United States. Her work in diplomacy has taken her all over the world, from New Delhi, Muscat, Damascus, Cairo, and Kingston. Similar to Tanden’s experience, Zeya is also a contentious choice for this position. In 2018, Zeya quit her job in the state department, owing her resignation to the racism and gender bias promoted by the Trump administration. Calling the administration a ‘pale male’ club, Zeya advocated for the diversification of her department.
“In the first five months of the Trump administration, the department’s three most senior African-American career officials and the top-ranking Latino career officer were removed or resigned abruptly from their positions, with white successors named in their place,” Zeya wrote in an article for Politico. “In the months that followed, I observed top-performing minority diplomats be disinvited from the secretary’s senior staff meeting, relegated to FOIA duty (well below their abilities), and passed over for bureau leadership roles and key ambassadorships.”
If chosen as the Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights, Zeya hopes to use her prior political experience to address key global issues such as peace in the Middle East, Russia’s increasing aggression in Europe, and climate change.
“In my 25+years as a diplomat, I learned that America’s greatest strength is the power of our example, diversity & democratic ideals,” Zeya said in a 2021 tweet. “I will uphold & defend these values, if confirmed, as Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights.
A former health policy advisor on the Domestic Policy Council, Vidur Sharma has been named by Biden as a testing advisor for the White House’s COVID-19 Response Team. Sharma played a key role in shaping health policy during the Obama administration, where he advocated for the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. A Harvard graduate, he also has years of experience working in the medical industry, as he has worked for Avalere Health, CareMore Health, and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in the past. As a testing advisor at the White House, Sharma will promote equity in the healthcare space, as he was a Deputy Research Director for Protect Our Care, an organization dedicated to “increasing coverage, lowering health care costs, and addressing racial inequities in our..system.”
Amid a global pandemic, equity will play a major role in the distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine. As the coronavirus is reportedly 2.8 times more likely to kill people of color, implicit biases in our healthcare system can have potentially fatal consequences. The Biden-Harris administration, in fact, recently established a COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force to aid “medically and socially vulnerable communities.” Sharma’s emphasis on inclusivity and equity certainly fits the values of the administration and will help ensure that the vaccine and coronavirus treatment plans reach all Americans.
There are so many threads of commonality among the South Asian Americans introduced to the White House — all passionate about government reform, all aware of our nation’s existing inequalities, all incredibly qualified for their positions. As a South Asian American hoping to enter America’s legislative process later in life, our community’s representation at the national level is both empowering and inspiring — a fond reminder that America, after years of underrepresentation for minority groups — is finally catching up.
Kanchan Naik is a senior at the Quarry Lane School in Dublin, California. She is the 2019-2020 Teen Poet Laureate for the City of Pleasanton, as well as the Director of Media Outreach for youth nonprofit Break the Outbreak. She is the founder and editor-in-chief of her school newspaper, The Roar, as well as the Global Student Editor for the summer edition of Stanford’s Newsroom by the Bay publication.
AACI and NBC Bay Area are hosting the Growing Up Asian in America (GUAA) art, essay, and video contest for students (kindergarten – 12th grade) in the nine Bay Area counties. GUAA provides a unique platform for young people to creatively explore and celebrate being both Asian or Pacific Islander and American. GUAA was started in 1995 by the Asian Pacific Fund and NBC Bay Area as one of the largest youth celebrations of Asian Pacific American (APA) Heritage Month in the nation.
Every year, hundreds of Bay Area students – Kindergarten through 12th grade – submit artwork, essays, and videos in response to a specific theme. It encourages young Asian Americans to take pride in their identities whilst discussing dreams for their future, pride in their cultural heritage, challenges they may face, and other complex issues. Furthermore, it helps individuals (both Asian and non-Asian) understand the varied experiences of our youth growing up in the Bay Area’s diverse communities. The program is competitive, and one (1) winner will receive the $1,000 Lance Lew Grand Prize Award and nine (9) winners will receive the $500 “Best in Class” awards, with Honorable Mention awards as well. All winners will have their entries showcased at the virtual awards ceremony and on the AACI website and have a chance to be featured on NBC Bay Area.
2021 Contest Theme: This Is My Time
The year 2020 has left a mark on history. With the COVID-19 pandemic, our community has battled a difficult time of uncertainty, illness, loss, and inequity. However, we can reflect and implement change to ensure a brighter future. Share what your vision of the future is and what tools and lessons you think will help to propel us into a new era post-pandemic.
Submissions will be accepted until Friday, April 2, 2021.
About AACI: Founded in 1973, AACI is one of the largest community-based organizations advocating for and serving the marginalized and vulnerable ethnic communities in Santa Clara County. Our many programs address the health and well-being of the individual and advance our belief in providing care that goes beyond just health, but also provides people a sense of hope and new possibilities. Current programs include behavioral and primary health services, substance abuse prevention and treatment, a center for survivors of torture, a shelter, and services for survivors of domestic violence and human trafficking, a senior center, youth programs, and community advocacy.
The past year has been less of a roller coaster ride than a grey fugue the country stumbled through, like a blind man negotiating a highway in the wrong direction.
At the end of the year, after battling a plague and an economic meltdown, terrible uncertainty and a horrific body count, came the event billed as seismic and life altering – the Presidential election.
The American public was entrusted with the task of choosing their next leader, someone who would lead the way out of the fugue and escort the blinded country safely across that killer highway to the right side. The build up to the election of 2020 felt cataclysmic: millions of us voted, according to our convictions, which were the strongest they’ve ever been.
2020 has been the year, when voting felt like you were a contestant in a gameshow, where you had to choose between two doors – behind the right door was the way out to safety and bliss. Make the wrong choice and a trapdoor opens and deposits you into a dark, unending hell. No matter who you supported, the wrong door, according to your beliefs, was a hell trap.
Because of how important I felt this election year was, I volunteered to be an election officer.
After all the votes were counted and the theatrics over election fraud began, it occurred to me that my experience in my official capacity as an election officer gave me a special, grassroots insight into the process.
The process was as clean and flawless as a new born baby.
It began with my online application. I was then required to fill in an application in person at our local government center building. My ID was checked multiple times and cross checked with what I filled into different forms. I was assigned a precinct close to my home, in my daughter’s old elementary school, and told to report at 5:00 am on election day. I was also required to watch a two-hour training video, since in-person training in the middle of COVID-19 was out of the question.
On Nov 3, at 5:00 am, before the birds began to chirp, we gathered in what was the school gym. Our chief was already there, and the ballot machines stood bulkily in a corner. They required a special procedure to be opened and two of us were assigned to open and activate them. A poll watcher was present and there were at least seven other election officers milling around, prepping the tables and activating the poll pads.
To try to stuff those machines with fraudulent ballots would be the equivalent of performing a naked tap dance in a kindergarten classroom and hope no one would notice.
The polls opened at 6:00 am and voting public began to line up at 5:30, spilling out the door into the chill of the morning. There was a festive spirit in the air – people were eager to cast their ballot and make their tiny mark on history.
What really sold me on the experience of being an election officer was how democratic it was.
There was no bureaucratic hierarchy with the chief barking out orders. We were volunteers -many of the officers were my neighbors. We were ordinary citizens entrusted with making sure the voting process was fair and accurate.
The momentous, historic nature of the task was not lost on us. We joked about how we would tell our grandkids we worked the polls in the divisive, fateful, 2020 election. All of us took turns at sanitizing the tables after people voted, monitoring the lines, handing out ballots, checking in voters and handling the machines.
When I was checking in voters I realized many were neighbors I had never met. I also gleaned after chatting with my fellow election officers, that some had political leanings which were the antithesis of mine.
However, whatever our political bent, we were there to work at making our democracy a success – our small precinct was a study in how people with political points of view which are about as compatible as a spark in an ammunition dump, are capable of cooperation, in a sane and sensible fashion to further a common good – the right to a free and fair election.
After months of watching the meltdowns, vitriol and extremism on television, it was a relief to realize that the average American is someone like me, a regular person just trying to do what is right and leave a better legacy for our children.
At the end of the day after the polls closed, we tallied the ballots with the machine count, and sealed them in boxes which would be sent to the county clerk. There was no scope for tampering: all the officers were present and had to sign off on the final count before the boxes were sealed.
It was as transparent a process as could possibly be.
I know for sure I’m going to volunteer for every election, going forward. Understanding how the system worked made me realize how important volunteers, the ordinary, everyday people, with no axe to grind and no political connections, are essential to ensuring that this grassroots foundation of democracy is preserved.
I discovered that America’s democracy is much less fragile than it appears to be.
Jyoti Minocha is an DC-based educator and writer who holds a Masters in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins, and is working on a novel about the Partition.
Edited by Meera Kymal, contributing editor at India Currents
Senior citizens have always been a very reliable voting bloc in the United States. We assume that this is because they have the time to go vote. While that might be somewhat true, the fact is that retired people are most vulnerable to any policy changes made by the government. When Social Security constitutes a sizable part of your income and Medicare is your only option for health care, voting is much more than just your civic duty – it becomes the most important thing you must do to maintain your quality of life.
Just like all older voters, older Asian Voters are more likely to be registered and to vote. They reliably show up to the polls to vote in larger numbers than their younger brethren. Infact, in presidential elections, voter turnout is even higher for foreign born Asians than those that are U.S. born.
This data is so puzzling but what does this mean and how does this impact this large voting bloc? It means that this group is invisible.
When you think of a Asian American voter, your mind immediately conjures up a 30 something year old, highly educated person with a good paycheck; painting a picture of a young, educated, middle class person. This image belies the fact that many of these voters are senior citizens or at least 50+ and this is the demographic that AARP (American Association of Retired Persons) is interested in.
Turning 50 is life changing in many ways, but the significance of that particular number becomes even more acute when you receive your welcome package from AARP. I am not old and I am certainly not retiring anytime soon you think and you are right. But AARP is not just for old, retired people.
AARP is working to have your (50+) voice heard on the issues that matter to this demographic. Protecting social security and medicare, lowering prices of prescription drugs, and ensuring your right to vote safely among many other issues. While these might not be issues that are top of mind for you at 50, you know it will be very soon.
Speakers at the Oct 21 AARP briefing released new findings from recent national surveys exploring the key priorities and concerns of Asian American voters aged 50 and older. Results from the 2020 Asian American Voter Survey (AAVS), conducted by AAPI Data on behalf of AARP, APIAVote and Asian Americans Advancing Justice-AAJC, show that 93% of Asian Americans 50-plus view health care as important heading into the election, making it the top most important issue. Jobs and the economy follow as the second most important issue, with 89% of respondents citing them either as “extremely” or “very” important.
With over 50k+ nursing home deaths and the disproportionate vulnerability of our elders to the current pandemic, these survey results are not surprising. COVID-19 has underscored the importance of healthcare as a voter issue and has caused a sense of insecurity related to the economy, health, freedom from discrimination, elections and voting.
Additional findings from the survey on 50+ AAPI (Asian American & Pacific Islander) – which is the category under which South Asians voters are aggregated include:
Plurality of older Asian voters identify as Democrat but the majority describe themselves as moderate. They are more united around ideology than around a party affiliation.
Older asian voters value opportunity and freedom. They also value entrepreneurial spirit, respecting people with different ideologies and have a greater willingness to accept refugees.
Majorities of older Asian American voters support action for equality and equity and agree that there is racial and ethnic discrimination in this country.
50+ Asian voters have become more progressive since the 2016 elections.
Over 75% of the older Asian voters get their election information from traditional media and about 42% from talking to their family.
If the 50+ Asian voter is so engaged and likely to vote, why are they not on the radar for either party?
One piece of data that is striking is this : 85% of 50+ Asian American voters are foreign born. One reason for this opportunity gap is the need to reach out in different languages in order to communicate effectively with this community.
But the larger reason for this lack of engagement is education about the numbers and their impact. “They don’t pay attention if there is no data,” says Daphne Kwok of AARP. “But now we are proving that this cohort is an important part of the electorate. For the political parties, it is so key that they start to hear from AAPI 50+” continues Kwok. Our issues and concerns have to be raised and addressed.
“We have seen over the past election cycles, more and more AAPIs getting involved politically, voting, and hopefully our voice is starting to become louder.” Kwok is also optimistic because it has also been proven in the last election that AAPIs have become the margin of victory in many races. Hopefully this is the incentive both parties see to reach out to this voting bloc that could make a difference for their candidate.
So let’s get out the Vote in our 50+ community. Each state has different rules, different timelines, and different procedures.
Older voters are more likely to vote in person. If there is a vulnerable senior citizen in your family, please take the proper precautions but help them make their vote count.
We can’t afford to let anyone’s vote go uncounted.
Anjana Nagarajan-Butaney is a Bay Area resident with experience in educational non-profits, community building, networking, and content development and was Community Director for an online platform. She is interested in how to strengthen communities by building connections to politics, science & technology, gender equality and public education.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to disproportionately impact our community, AACI’s Health Center remains committed to providing much needed resources during this time.
At AACI’s Story Road location will be providing No-Charge COVID-19 Testing for members of the community. Feel share this resource with your own networks and those in need.
No doctor’s note is required and we will serve everyone regardless of insurance or immigration status. Testing is only available to individuals without symptoms at this community testing event. We recommend that anyone experiencing symptoms see their own doctors.
If someone does not already have a doctor, AACI’s Health Center is accepting new patients. Please call (408) 975-2763 for more information.
It’s Tuesday morning, and teacher Tamya Daly has her online class playing an alphabet game. The students are writing quickly and intently, with occasional whoops of excitement, on the little whiteboards she dropped off at their homes the day before along with coloring books, markers, Silly Putty and other learning props — all of which she created or paid for with her own money.
Two of the seven children in her combined third and fifth grade class weren’t home when Daly came by with the gift bags. One of the two managed to find her own writing tablet, thanks to an older brother, but the other can’t find a piece of paper in her dad’s house. She sits quietly watching her classmates on Zoom for half an hour while Daly tries futilely to get the father’s attention. Maybe the student is wearing earphones; maybe the father is out of the room.
As children head back to school online across California and much of the nation, some of the disparities that plague education are growing wider. Instead of attending the same school with similar access to supplies and teacher time, children are directly dependent on their home resources, from Wi-Fi and computers to study space and parental guidance. Parents who work, are poor or have less education are at a disadvantage, as are their kids.
Daly teaches elementary students with special needs. The children in her class, who have a variety of diagnoses and intellectual disabilities, are at even higher risk — they can’t work independently and need more hands-on instruction. “The more they’re not getting those kinds of accommodations, the further they’re going to fall behind,” said Allison Gandhi, a managing director in special education at the nonprofit American Institutes for Research.
Educators and families fear devastating long-term consequences from COVID-19 for the nearly 800,000 California children who received special education services. So, in early August, the state announced it was developing a waiver application process for schools, even in COVID-plagued counties, that want to bring small groups of these students back for in-person education.
“There are simply kids that will never, ever have that quality learning that we all desire to advance online, no matter what kind of support we provide, even if we individualize it,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said at an Aug. 14 news conference.
Online learning is interfering with the students’ individualized education programs, or IEPs — legal agreements among families, school districts and specialists that set academic and behavioral goals for students and the services they’re entitled to.
The gap in online learning experience is sharply visible in Daly’s class, and the parents’ role is crucial. For parents who don’t have to work, distance learning may be tense and time-consuming, but it becomes part of a daily routine to be endured until the pandemic ebbs. For others, schooling is an unworkable nightmare burdening parents already stretched to their limits.
School started Aug. 12. By day five, Daly knew which children had the luxury of a stay-at-home parent and which were being supervised by older siblings. She knew which students struggled to get online on time every day — a new state requirement for all virtual learners — and which ones needed reminding to eat breakfast before class started.
She also knew, from last spring, that most of the parents couldn’t print the worksheets she had uploaded to Google Classroom. Their printers were broken, or printer ink cost too much, or they didn’t have printers. For this semester, she set up a time every Thursday for parents to drive by the school and pick up packets for the following week.
Daly works at Emery Park Elementary School in Alhambra, east of downtown Los Angeles, where two-thirds of the students qualified last year for free or reduced-price school meals. The school has loaned about 80% of the 434 students Chromebooks because they didn’t have computers at home, said principal Jeremy Infranca.
Like most schools in California, Emery Park started the school year in virtual classrooms — the safest option for a state with a stubbornly persistent infection rate. The Alhambra school district has yet to decide whether to apply for a waiver to bring students with special needs back on campus. Infranca and Daly would like to — if they can secure COVID-19 protective gear for themselves and their students, and if families feel comfortable with it.
In the meantime, Daly is doing her best to accommodate her families, which isn’t easy. Parents have told her to limit live group instruction to an hour a day, so as not to interfere with child care schedules or the laptop needs of other children in the household. To make up for the reduced time, Daly records several 15- to 30-minute videos explaining the work to be done and plans to schedule an individual session with each child once a week.
“I choose to be positive about this experience, and I choose to communicate and do my best to reach out to the students and connect with parents and family members,” said Daly. “We just need to be proactive, and also a little patient.”
Families have different opinions about whether to return their kids to the schoolhouse. It often depends more on a family’s desperation over child care than consideration of COVID-19 risks.
Cat Lee, 44, was nervous at first when she realized she had to take on the bulk of hands-on teaching for her son, Jacob, a fifth grader in Daly’s class.
“I wondered, would I be able to teach him as well, and would he be able to learn it?” she said.
Lee is a stay-at-home mom, and so far she has been able to stick to the schedule Daly lays out. She’s there with Jacob at every Zoom session and logs onto the Seesaw app to go through all the assignments. She praised Daly for her curriculum, which she felt was better and easier to teach than what the family received back in March. But she had reservations about her son’s new normal.
“It’s really slowing down his learning; plus, he doesn’t interact with kids anymore,” said Lee.
Still, if she had the chance to send Jacob for in-person learning now, Lee wouldn’t take it. She has concerns about their immune systems — Lee had a kidney transplant five years ago, and Jacob was born at just 27 weeks’ gestation — and is holding out for a COVID vaccine before allowing Jacob to resume his normal activities.
Not that she doesn’t have doubts.
“My fear is that he’s going to be home for so long, he’ll be so used to it and he won’t want to go back to school,” she said.
Danielle Musquiz, a 32-year-old mother with five elementary school-aged boys — four adopted from a relative — would favor a return to school. She gets three or four hours of sleep each night because of her 90-hour workweek with two jobs, as a home aide and a cashier at a regional park.
Four of her sons receive special education services, including an adopted middle child who is in Daly’s class and has cognitive delays linked to fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. The children, crowded together at the dining room table or in the living room, listen to their classes with earphones to keep from disturbing one another, which means she can’t hear a teacher calling out to her from the screen.
The four kids have individual education programs, but it’s hard for Musquiz to oversee them “with the minimal amount of time I have at home,” she said. She’s feeling overwhelmed by having to coordinate, supervise and respond to teachers, counselors and therapists for each child.
Musquiz is working longer hours than before the pandemic, and she picks up shifts at the park when the boys’ former stepfather takes them for the weekend.
“I’m slowly starting to say — and I know that this sounds bad — I don’t care anymore about the kids’ schooling,” Musquiz laughed nervously. “I feel like it’s chaos, and I’m drowning.”
To help with child care, her mother lives with the family Monday through Thursday, and her sons spend Thursday nights at her sister’s house. On Fridays, nine kids are all streaming their classes online from that house. On a recent Friday, the Wi-Fi broke, prompting a call from the school of one of her sons asking why he had left class early.
If she had the opportunity, Musquiz would send her children back to in-person learning in a heartbeat.
“None of my kids are really going to learn what they need to,” said Musquiz. “They need hands-on, they need interaction, they need motivation, and these classes are not doing that for them.”
Can schools safely reopen though the pandemic shows little sign of waning and educators stumble towards the first day of school in the absence of a clear cut strategy?
The answer is uncertain.
In early July President Trump demanded that schools “open quickly, beautifully, in the fall” for normal, in-person instruction.
The CDC responded with guidelines instructing school districts to build supportive community infrastructures to counter the onslaught of COVID-19 as schools reopened. They urged school officials to implement hygiene and social distancing practices and develop ‘proactive’ plans with health departments, parents and caregivers to deal with potential outbreaks.
A snapshot of the ‘new normal’ for K-12 schools.
Keeping active kindergartners apart; keeping their masks on; fewer students on school buses; limited class sizes; keeping staff safe; sanitizing; PPE; social distancing; online SATs; remote learning; iPads or computers for all.
For many schools, adjusting to the new normal would be a complicated and expensive endeavor.
School systems which struggled with pandemic restrictions would face even greater logistical and financial burdens meeting the new CDC requirements, leaving them with no other option than to continue with virtual classes moving forward.
President Trump tweeted his displeasure at the “very tough and expensive guidelines for opening schools,” and, under pressure, the CDC retracted its message, effectively relinquishing the decision making to school administrators. At the behest of the White House, the CDC emphasized the “importance of reopening America’s schools this fall,” and warned that extended school closures would “be harmful to children.”
What is certain however, is that a safe return to in-person school comes with a hefty price tag – a whopping 200 billion dollars or more, or about $490 per K-12 student. At a panel discussion on how to safely reopen schools hosted by Ethnic Media Services on July 31, Domenech explained that the costs would cover laptops for students and an array of preventive measures that include sanitizers, masks, PPE and safe busing, before schools could consider opening their doors to staff and students. The expense would place an unprecedented financial burden on overstretched school district budgets in the next academic year.
So, a safe reopening would need a huge injection of federal funds (that the Council of Chief State School Officers projected would cost between $158.1 billion and $244.6 billion,) but the government is threatening to cut funds for schools that don’t fully reopen.
Many school districts cannot afford the expense, so policymakers at state and local levels are choosing to wait before making a decision on whether to reopen schools, based on assessments of COVID-19 threats in their region.
Is it safe to go back to school?
In a press briefing, the White House pushed the idea that the greater risk right now is to children’s learning, rather than to their health and wellbeing, announcing that, “We don’t think our children should be locked up at home with devastating consequences when it’s perfectly safe for them to go to school.”
Till recently, the common belief was that young children were not affected by COVID-19 and were unlikely to spread the virus. In fact the CDC reiterated that children pose no risks, stating that, “The best available evidence from countries that have opened schools indicates that COVID-19 poses low risks to school-aged children, at least in areas with low community transmission, and suggests that children are unlikely to be major drivers of the spread of the virus.”
However, new research from a pediatric hospital in Chicago that published its findings in JAMA, indicates that children carry high levels of the virus in their upper respiratory tracks and may efficiently spread infection by sneezing, coughing or shouting.
“In several countries where schools that have opened prematurely, such as Israel, we have seen a rise in cases,” said Pedro Noguera, Dean, USC Rossier School of Education.
As findings like these make parents and educators uncertain about reopening schools in a pandemic, it may be prudent for school districts to first assess the threat of COVID-19 infections in their area before making plans to send children back to school, suggested by Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, in recent interviews with PBS and the Washington Post.
Inequities in K-12 Education
As schools juggle in-person classes versus online learning and hybrid models, some wealthy families are resolving their uncertainty by creating private learning pods or ‘micro-schools,’ with hired tutors to educate their children. It’s an arrangement that reflects the inequities experienced by less privileged students from special needs, disadvantaged and low income backgrounds. Without tutors or pods, and limited access to internet and laptops, these children are likely to fall further behind and “experience tremendous learning loss,” noted Noguera.
The current education crisis stems froma lack of leadership, said Noguera, adding that “The real questions facing the US is when will leadership emerge that can provide the guidance that schools need on how to manage instruction…safely … and how to reopen appropriately, in a manner that does not place lives at risk.” He called on local and community leaders to step up in the interim. It will be up to local and community leaders to create innovative ways to deliver education and support children and families, in the short term, said Noguera.
Moving forward into the future will be challenging for schools because the scope of funding required to make changes is not forthcoming from the federal purse . Without adequate funding for health and safety measures in place, Noguera stated that school districts will have to contend with, for example, teacher unions who recently announced they will go on strike over unsafe conditions.
Eleven million children do not have the laptops they need for remote learning, said Domenech. So, even though technology offers valuable learning platforms, it can be a double edged sword, when teachers are ill prepared to use it effectively and students who have little or no access to technology lose out on their learning.
Schools will have to show teachers how to close the “digital divide,” advised Noguera, by training them “to use the technology to deliver meaningful instruction to kids.” But, whatever devices students use for learning, without access to reliable Internet and Wi-Fi, low income and disadvantaged students would face inequities of digital access, warned USC Professor Shaun R. Harper. In LA, school districts have invested in making screens and hotspots available within communities so children can access learning; but children in rural areas have even less connection and risk being left behind.
Noguera suggested that instead of trying to adapt curricula to cell phones, another option would be to go back to “old school approaches to education” using pencil and paper, adding that “they worked before technology, and could work again.”
“For now, whether our education looks like mini learning pods, pandemic pods, micro schools, or collaborative tutoring with college students….that’s still going to provide inequity in our educational system.” cautioned Eddie Valero, Supervisor for District 4, Tulare County Board of Supervisors. He was referring to economist Emily Oster’s prediction that clusters of home schooling families are going to happen everywhere regardless, and “that will create an economic divide.”
Re-envisioning the future of schooling
Panelists offered several perspectives on when and how schools should reopen.
In working with school superintendents on reopening of schools based on CDC guidelines, said Domenech, the future could feature one of three options – the popular hybrid model, with students on weekly shifts between online learning and in-person classes seated 6 feet apart, total remote learning, or returning to school full-time as before.
However, the continuing rise in infections across the country means that most schools may open remotely. It may be possible for students to return to school only in areas where the rate of infection is below 5%, advised Noguera, suggesting that less risky, outdoor learning may be one way to address the problem. However, places experiencing a surge in cases such as the Imperial Valley in southern California, will have “to rely on community organizations like non-profits to support families and deliver education to children in concert with the school district,” he said.
Noguera’s view was echoed by Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, USC Associate Professor at the Brain and Creativity Institute and Rossier School of Education, who suggested tapping into the “huge cohort of college-ready high school graduates” and using their skills as a resource for tutoring younger students. Engaging young people as a ‘brigade of community tutors” could help solve the shortage of people in teaching and learning, and give them a sense of purpose,” said Yang.
Professor Harper, who leads the USC Race and Equity Center warned that ‘raceless’ reopening policies from school districts would “yield racially disparate outcomes”. He suggested that more consultation with communities of color was needed to “racialize input” into the K-12 reopening strategy. That would involve considerations like providing proper PPE, testing and contact tracing for essential workers in schools who are more likely to be employees of color and are disproportionately exposed to infection, as well as trauma and grief support for staff and students of color, who are more likely to have experienced loss of a family or community member to the virus.
The panelists called on the private sector, specifically high tech companies and philanthropists, to step up and help avert the crisis.
Big tech firms like Amazon said Noguera, which have accumulated huge profits during the pandemic, have a responsibility to assist.
Harper described this timeframe as an opportunity for philanthropists and foundations who want to close racial equity gaps by helping finance “accessibility to learning pods for poorer students who cannot afford it.” There is also a role, he suggested, for nonprofits, youth organizations and college access providers to add to their agendas and recreate pod-like experiences for disadvantaged youth during the pandemic.
Schools are relying on Congress to pass funding that will get K-12 education back on track safely, and Domenech predicts that the majority of schools in America will start the school year with remote learning because, ‘in order to bring any children into school, dollars will be required.”
Valero closed out the discussion by inviting policymakers to re-envision what school should look like for the future by thinking “in creative ways that disrupt our everyday normalcy for something different,” but he urged, “honestly it begins with access, opportunity and fairness for all students.”
“We need to model our classrooms with our most struggling students in mind.”
Meera Kymal is a contributing editor at India Currents
Imagine this scenario, perhaps a year or two in the future: An effective COVID-19 vaccine is routinely available and the world is moving forward. Life, however, will likely never be the same — particularly for people over 60.
That is the conclusion of geriatric medical doctors, aging experts, futurists and industry specialists. Experts say that in the aftermath of the pandemic, everything will change, from the way older folks receive health care to how they travel and shop. Also overturned: their work life and relationships with one another.
“In the past few months, the entire world has had a near-death experience,” said Ken Dychtwald, CEO of Age Wave, a think tank on aging around the world. “We’ve been forced to stop and think: I could die or someone I love could die. When those events happen, people think about what matters and what they will do differently.”
Older adults are uniquely vulnerable because their immune systems tend to deteriorate with age, making it so much harder for them to battle not just COVID-19 but all infectious diseases. They are also more likely to suffer other health conditions, like heart and respiratory diseases, that make it tougher to fight or recover from illness. So it’s no surprise that even in the future, when a COVID-19 vaccine is widely available — and widely used — most seniors will be taking additional precautions.
“Before COVID-19, baby boomers” — those born after 1945 but before 1965 — “felt reassured that with all the benefits of modern medicine, they could live for years and years,” said Dr. Mehrdad Ayati, who teaches geriatric medicine at Stanford University School of Medicine and advises the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging. “What we never calculated was that a pandemic could totally change the dialogue.”
It has. Here’s a preview of post-vaccine life for older Americans:
Time to learn telemed. Only 62% of people over 75 use the internet — and fewer than 28% are comfortable with social media, according to data from the Pew Research Center. “That’s lethal in the modern age of health care,” Dychtwald said, so there will be a drumbeat to make them fluent users of online health care.
1 in 3 visits will be telemed. Dr. Ronan Factora, a geriatrician at Cleveland Clinic, said he saw no patients age 60 and up via telemedicine before the pandemic. He predicted that by the time a COVID-19 vaccine is available, at least a third of those visits will be virtual. “It will become a significant part of my practice,” he said. Older patients likely will see their doctors more often than once a year for a checkup and benefit from improved overall health care, he said.
Many doctors instead of just one. More regular remote care will be bolstered by a team of doctors, said Greg Poland, professor of medicine and infectious diseases at the Mayo Clinic. The team model “allows me to see more patients more efficiently,” he said. “If everyone has to come to the office and wait for the nurse to bring them in from the waiting room, well, that’s an inherent drag on my productivity.”
Drugstores will do more vaccinations. To avoid the germs in doctors’ offices, older patients will prefer to go to drugstores for regular vaccinations such as flu shots, Factora said.
Your plumbing will be your doctor. In the not-too-distant future — perhaps just a few years from now — older Americans will have special devices at home to regularly analyze urine and fecal samples, Dychtwald said, letting them avoid the doctor’s office.
Punch up the Google Maps. Many trips of 800 miles or less will likely become road trips instead of flights, said Ed Perkins, a syndicated travel columnist for the Chicago Tribune. Perkins, who is 90, said that’s certainly what he plans to do — even after there’s a vaccine.
Regional and local travel will replace foreign travel. Dychtwald, who is 70, said he will be much less inclined to travel abroad. For example, he said, onetime plans with his wife to visit India are now unlikely, even if a good vaccine is available, because they want to avoid large concentrations of people. That said, each year only 25% of people 65 and up travel outside the U.S. annually, vs. 45% of the general population, according to a survey by Visa. The most popular trip for seniors: visiting grandchildren.
Demand for business class will grow. When older travelers (who are financially able) choose to fly, they will more frequently book roomy business-class seats because they won’t want to sit too close to other passengers, Factora said.
Buying three seats for two. Older couples who fly together — and have the money — will pay for all three seats so no one is between them, Perkins said.
Hotels will market medical care. Medical capability will be built into more travel options, Dychtwald said. For example, some hotels will advertise a doctor on-site — or one close by. “The era is over of being removed from health care and feeling comfortable,” he said.
Disinfecting will be a sales pitch. Expect a rich combination of health and safety “theater” — particularly on cruises that host many older travelers, Perkins said: “Employees will be wandering around with disinfecting fogs and wiping everything 10 times.”
Cruises will require proof of vaccination. Passengers — as well as cruise employees — will likely have to prove they’ve been vaccinated before traveling, Factora said.
Local eateries will gain trust. Neighborhood and small-market restaurants will draw loyal customers — mainly because they know and trust the owners, said Christopher Muller, a hospitality professor at Boston University.
Safety will be a bragging point. To appeal to older diners in particular, restaurants will prominently display safety-inspection signage and visibly signal their cleanliness standards, Muller said. They will even hire employees exclusively to wipe down tables, chairs and all high-touch points — and these employees will be easy to identify and very visible
The homecoming. Because of so many COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes, more seniors will leave assisted living facilities and nursing homes to move in with their families, Factora said. “Families will generally move closer together,” he said.
The fortress. Home delivery of almost everything will become the norm for older Americans, and in-person shopping will become much less common, Factora said.
Older workers will stay home. The 60-and-up workforce increasingly will be reluctant to work anywhere but from home and will be very slow to re-embrace grocery shopping. “Instacart delivery will become the new normal for them,” Dychtwald said.
Forced social distancing. Whenever or wherever large families gather, people exhibiting COVID-like symptoms may not be welcomed under any circumstances, Ayati said.
Older folks will disengage, at a cost. Depression will skyrocket among older people who isolate from family get-togethers and large gatherings, Ayati said. “As the older population pulls back from engaging in society, this is a very bad thing.”
Public restrooms will be revamped. For germ avoidance, they’ll increasingly get no-touch toilets, urinals, sinks and entrances/exits. “One of the most disastrous places you can go into is a public restroom,” Poland said. “That’s about the riskiest place.”
More than 20 million renters who are unable to pay rent are at risk of eviction as $600 weekly federal subsidies and eviction moratoriums that gave temporary relief expire on July 30.
As lawmakers spar over extended unemployment benefits, millions of displaced workers who relied on federal aid in the midst of the pandemic, now face the specter of personal bankruptcy and impending eviction from their homes as their safety nets disappear in the midst of the continuing recession.
Earlier this year, when the pandemic totaled much of the US economy, lawmakers gave laid off workers a lifeline in the form of the Cares Act providing $600 a week in unemployment benefits. That weekly federal supplement week enabled many displaced workers to afford to pay their rent and other bills, but that federal money stops this weekend.
According to a CNN business report, more than 44 million furloughed and out-of-work Americans filed for unemployment benefits since March this year. That lifeline is due to disappear by end July with the Senate in disarray on how to resolve the relief package, forcing a housing crisis upon tenants who cannot make their rent.
In a double whammy, federal eviction bans offering COVID-related rent relief protection from evictions for renters living in homes with federally backed mortgages also lapse this month.
The Federal Housing Administration (FHA) had responded to the COVID-19 pandemic by halting evictions of renters living in properties they finance and providing aid for an estimated 12 million rental units, some with federally guaranteed loans. Even so, only 25% of eligible renters received housing subsidies. That safety net ended on July 24.
Millions of vulnerable out-of-work Americans now face a precarious prospect. They could be kicked out of their homes with no reprieve in sight, as a merciless pandemic continues to ravage their lives and livelihoods even as COVID-19 restrictions require them to shelter-in-place to control the coronavirus.
In an interview with NPR, Diane Yentel, president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, expressed concerns that “without a sustained federal intervention, there will be a wave of evictions and a spike in homelessness across the country.”
At a July 17th ethnic media briefing hosted by Ethnic Media Services, housing policy experts and advocates shared insights on the looming threat of mass evictions and identified measures that could protect tenants and at risk populations.
Who is Affected?
Experts are predicting “a tsunami of evictions nationwide,” as the pandemic exposes and deepens racial and economic inequities in American communities,
The housing crisis that already existed was exacerbated by the pandemic, said Dr.Emily Benfer, a visiting professor at the Wake Forest School of Law, and renters of color will bear the brunt of its impact.
“Between the scarcity of federal housing assistance and the loss of over 4 million affordable housing units over the last decade,” renters were increasingly vulnerable to eviction coming into the pandemic, she explained, “with seven evictions being filed every minute in 2016.”
Dr Benfer, the principal investigator in a nationwide study of COVID-19 eviction moratoriums and housing policies, confirmed that renters were experiencing increased financial hardship during the pandemic.
“50 million renters today live in households that suffered COVID-19 related job loss or income loss,” she stated, ”with 40 percent of that occurring in especially low income households.” The high demand for rental assistance meant that “programs were being exhausted within minutes of being opened.”
She noted that food pantry requests had increased “by as much as 2000% in some states,” which meant that renters were really financially stretched to pay their rent and had limited resources for other necessities like food and healthcare. Nearly 31.6% had low confidence in their ability to pay rent during the pandemic while many were using credit cards or taking loans to make ends meet.
An analysis of findings from the Household Pulse Survey, estimated that almost 16.9 million households, many with families and children, are unable to pay rent and risk eviction. One in four households reported they were late on rent and mortgage payments, and, the highest insecurity rates were recorded in states where eviction bans had already expired. Nearly 60% of landlords surveyed by the American Apartment Owners Association confirmed their tenants are unable to pay rent because of the coronavirus.
Communities of color have been hit the hardest as benefit checks and housing relief measures vanish. They have experienced COVID-19 related infection, death and job loss at a higher rate than other demographics said Dr. Benfer. Almost 73% of black renters said they lacked emergency funds to cover expenses for three months and 61% of Hispanic renters said they had experienced COVID19-related wage and job loss.
Small property owners who lack the financial cushion to sustain non-payment of rent, but who own nearly 22.7 million rental units in the country, will be affected, predicted Benfer, citing a Harvard University estimate that almost 20% of renters in these properties will have difficulty paying rent. The impending decline in rental payments will cripple the affordable housing market, and small property owners who cannot find new tenants are likely to take rental units off the market and repurpose them, further depleting the affordable housing market, she added.
As moratoriums expire and evictions are filed (80 thousand are expected in Michigan, for example), most court cases have moved to remote hearings, but it raises question said Benfer, about how people with limited computer or phone access and language barriers, will get a fair hearing. Tenants rights advocate Nisha Vyas added that in California, landlords are represented by attorneys in the vast majority of eviction filings, yet, even if tenants have a strong case but no attorney, they will likely lose their case.
The Impact on Renters
“Evictions have negative consequences, warned Benfer. Being evicted takes a disproportionate toll on the financial wellbeing of renters; it will send credit scores, employment and academic prospects into a downward spiral; residential instability and homelessness will contribute to downward mobility forcing families into housing of substandard quality or crime-ridden neighborhoods, and the inability to access social services will leave many without a safety net.
Even receiving an eviction notice can increase stress and severely impact health outcomes, advised Benfer, referring to studies that document how eviction increases rates of respiratory diseases, mortality, depression, and suicidal ideation, while children become susceptible to early drug use, teen pregnancy and adverse childhood experiences.
Evicted families will be forced into overcrowded housing or homeless shelters, warned Benfer, which are spaces that will not allow them to safely social distance and puts people at risk of greater exposure to COVID19. “Evictions are likely to lead to a 20 to 40% increase in homelessness,” added Dr. Margot Kushel, Professor of Medicine at San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center and the Director of the UCSF Center for Vulnerable Populations, and many people “fall from eviction directly into homelessness.”
“Ultimately” Benfer pointed out, “the pandemic has magnified and heightened the socio-economic divide, and the health and racial disparities,” shredding the already threadbare safety net for vulnerable communities in America.
Housing Relief Measures
Policy makers are introducing bills to ease the hardships that tenants face during the pandemic. Senator Kamala Harris introduced the Relief Act to ban evictions and foreclosures for a year for tenants and homeowners. Senator Elizabeth Warren introduced the “Protecting Renters from Evictions and Fees Act,” to broaden the eviction moratoriums in the CARES Act and protect all renters for a full year, while HHS Secretary Alex Azar renewed the COVID-19 national public health emergency declaration, effective July 25.
The Children’s Defense Fund urged Congress to intervene and provide housing assistance on behalf of millions of children who could lose their homes, while the National Housing Law Project together with a coalition of 100 other organizations, sent a letter to HUD to use its legal authority to protect low-income renters.
Landlords are also looking for creative ways like lease guarantees, to shield against non-payment of rent.
Maryland State delegate Kumar Barve told the panel that his committee had urged Governor Larry Hogan to extend the eviction moratorium until January 2021 so as to craft a more permanent public policy response on housing relief for affected residents and avoid the potential for largescale social disruption.
”Evicting 10 percent of the population would be a humanitarian catastrophe” he said.
In California, due to dramatic increases in unsheltered homelessness during the pandemic, Governor Newsom launched Project Roomkey, to secure thousands of hotel and motel rooms to protect homeless people from Covid-19, stated Dr. Kushel. The initiative has successfully housed over fifteen thousand homeless individuals so far. The newly launched Project Homekey will provide $600 million to acquire properties and convert them into interim or permanent, long-term housing.
Sonoma County small business owner Akash Kalia described how the hospitality industry could make a social impact in the housing crisis. In 2015, he converted his family’s 104 unit motel ‘The Palms,’ into permanently supportive housing for homeless veterans and chronically homeless civilians. Robust, cost effective services provided on site – weekly food distribution, mobile health clinic and therapy – ensure that sustainable housing is maintained for this vulnerable population.
Meanwhile, as of April 1st, more than 80 cities and counties have adopted tenant protections including temporary bans on evictions said Vyas, a senior attorney at Western Center on Law & Poverty. Her firm is co-sponsoring a Tenant Protection Bill (AB 1436) designed to give tenants a fair chance to pay rent owed and for landlords to pursue unpaid rent through the civil actions rather than an eviction process.
Who’s to Blame?
Vyas cautioned against using the term ‘tsunami’ to describe the looming threat of mass evictions. “I want to be really clear that this is not a natural disaster. It will be a disaster of our own making.”
How will we recover?
Unquestionably the housing crisis needs a humanitarian response. The Heroes Act is still stalled in the Senate awaiting approval for a second round of stimulus checks, even as the deadline draws near.
Will lawmakers use this opportunity to ensure that the new post pandemic reality that Dr. Benfer hopes for, is one in which “health justice, racial justice and housing justice are realized?”
Time is running out.
Meera Kymal is a contributing editor at India Currents
When Covid closed down Jaipur’s teeming streets, Harmendra Singh, like many other daily wage laborers, panicked. How would he feed his family of six? For Harmendra, a blacksmith who makes INR 300.00 per day and lives in Jaipur’s Dhoongri slum, the shutdown in India was particularly brutal–he needed his income for his family’s basic daily survival. The government took its time stepping in to fill the gap created by a cratering of daily wage incomes, and it was left to local charities to help desperate people like Harmender and his family.
The charity that came to his rescue was Edu-GIRLS, whose school his daughter, Riya Kaur, and her younger sister were enrolled in. Like other charities across India, the suddenness of the Corvid lockdown transformed Edu-GIRLS higher mission goals of educating and mentoring girls living in some of India’s poorest slums into more immediate, lifesaving ones.
“We adapted fast,” says Anand Seth, who founded the non-profit in Washington DC, in 2012. (Since then, it has expanded out of Jaipur and taken its successful model of educating slum children to three other locations–Bengaluru in India, Saraswati in Nepal and Kohat in Pakistan).
“From the first day of the lockdown we gathered basic rations and made packets of essentials which included atta, dal, rice, oil, salt, sugar, chai, etc. and distributed them. The girls were put in charge of identifying families in need, and they went around the slum delivering supplies. If there could be a silver lining to something as awful as Covid, it was the way the girls began to be viewed. They were the source of the family’s survival because of their enrollment in our school, and they’ve become a prime asset for their community.
As of May 2020, Edu-GIRLS has provided 600,000 meals to 1000 families.
“We haven’t slowed down,” says Shubhra Garg, the Secretary/Treasurer at Edu-GIRLS, and a hands-on volunteer who communicates regularly with Edu-GIRLS partner school, Vimukti, in Jaipur. “We’ve innovated.”
“In the beginning of the Pandemic we got the girls to make and distribute masks. They made over 4000, with donated cloth. After basic needs like food were provided for, our next emphasis was how to make sure educational time wasn’t lost. The girls had no access to laptops or computers at home and the staff had to innovate to provide virtual learning to them. A teach- by phone- program was initiated during the shutdown––students had to borrow their parents’ smartphones for three hours every day and teachers posted lessons and activities and homework which they were accountable for. This has been quite successful.”
Another consequence of the lockdown has been the urgency to push the digital learning program into high gear. Edu-GIRLS had already partnered with Khan Academy and the digital education provider BYGU to bring online learning to its upper grades. It now aims to push for a faster evolution to digital teaching for its lower school as well and has begun a Facebook campaign to raise funds towards that goal.
Chatting with the team of Edu-GIRLS board members and volunteers in Washington DC, I see that they haven’t lost any of their pre-pandemic enthusiasm for continuing fundraising and expanding programs, even if they can’t make the supportive visits to the schools in India which used to be a regular feature before COVID. They have gone into high gear with virtual and paper mail alternatives for communicating with the Edu-GIRLS family, and are innovating new formats for fundraising drives.
“We were not sure what to expect from our donors when faced with a highly unusual catastrophe like Covid. In fact, we’ve had a surge of interest from our donors—many new ones have stepped forward after seeing the havoc Covid is wrecking on the poor in India. I think the fact that we kept donors extremely well informed throughout of how we were continuing to serve the slum community and on how we had innovated during the Pandemic, contributed to their support. We raised almost 30,000.00 immediately for Covid relief from 100 supporters,” says Anand.
Edu-GIRLS goals for 2023 include educating 1450 girls with a 100% pass rate and placing at least 110 in jobs which will double their family’s income.
“We feel vested in these girls,” adds Sangeeta Agarwal, who contributes her skills as a filmmaker towards designing the organization’s media offerings
“We support them from primary school to higher education and, eventually, financial independence. What’s the point of all that education if the girl can’t become financially self-sufficient? So, it’s a particularly satisfying connection from a volunteer point of view because we follow the same children for their whole educational life and beyond. We look at all the factors that might limit their access to education—transportation, family attitudes, even basic hygiene, etc.”
“Yes, even basic hygiene can be an obstacle to a girl’s education,” Sangeeta says in response to my surprised expression.
“Many girls drop out of school when their periods start because they can’t afford sanitary pads and they’re ashamed.”
Edu-GIRLS has adopted a Ten-Mantra program that addresses all the invisible obstacles to a girl’s education like the monthly menstruation cycle and safe transportation to school. There are 10 things they focus on as goals—these include a free, quality, English curriculum, with short school days and a long school year, safe transportation to and from school for the girls, nutrition health and hygiene training, community outreach, exposure to science and math, vocational and college scholarships and performance incentives.
Priti Jain, who organizes outdoor walkathons for fundraising, is currently working on the next one. “I was attracted to the charity by their focus on girls’ education,” says Priti, whose Facebook tagline says, ‘If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.’
“At least walking is one fundraiser which will involve time away from a screen. Since we must emphasize safety, we are looking into holding a virtual walk-a-thon. Participants walk on their own at an assigned time and post their miles and contributions online.”
The team is all really pleased with how the girls have risen to the crisis in their communities and have made masks and distributed food while mentoring and teaching the younger children, whether it’s proper COVID hygiene or other lessons.
“They are the true heroes of their community,” Shubhra concludes.
Jyoti Minocha is a DC-based educator and writer who holds a Masters in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins and is working on a novel about the Partition.
Edited by Meera Kymal, contributing editor at India Currents
Image credit: EDU-GIRLS Riya Kaur (10) lives in the Jhalana Doongri slums, Jaipur. and is a class IV student.