Tag Archives: COVID-19

Teen Foodie Uses Techie Magic to Help Local Restaurants

Samarth Tewari

Samarth Tewari was just another hungry teenager in search of a greater variety of food to tickle his taste buds while stuck at home during COVID-19. His mother Geetika, a working professional, was wondering how to deal with the insatiable appetite of a growing teen, but nixed the idea of ordering from local restaurants.

“No way, it’s not safe due to COVID19,” she cautioned.

Samarth, a rising sophomore at Mission San Jose High School picked up the phone to find out why. He made a few calls to local restaurant owners as the pandemic got underway, and quickly learned that many restaurants had been forced to close or were struggling to stay open while trying to comply with the new rules.

Was there a solution that could resolve this foodie crisis? Samarth’s techie dad suggested he “Figure it out yourself and help folks in the process.”

Samarth began researching the safety concerns of the general public, as well as the revenue losses being experienced by local restaurants. Sifting through health inspection data provided by the Alameda County Health Department, he came up with FAQs on safety criteria based on CDC guidelines, to determine which restaurants would be considered “safest” to buy food from during the pandemic.

The result was eatsafefremont.org, a website that encouraged locals to safely eat at neighborhood restaurants by a process of elimination based on their food safety concerns.

As the website rolled out it received a remarkable 12,000 visits and over 2,200 unique individual users .

In yet another enterprising initiative, Samarth roped in his mother (a Fremont Bridge Rotarian) to support the local community by helping restaurants that have lost nearly 90% of their profits. Through fundraising efforts organized by Fremont Bridge Rotary and District 5170 of Rotary International, the project raised enough money to help locally owned restaurants pay their bills, retain their employees, and show support from the community during these difficult times.

Local restauranteurs are impressed. Gael Stewart who owns the popular Mission Coffee House in Fremont noted, “This $500 check came as a shock.  This young man had been in touch, but I wasn’t sure if we will actually receive funds. It means a lot, a young kid doing so much to support his community and caring about a local coffee shop with support from the community who want our coffee shop to be open post COVID19.”

Cantaritos, a Mexican restaurant,  Lovely Sweets and Snacks Indian Cuisine, and Dina’s Family restaurant which have served the Fremont community for decades, are delighted by community efforts to support their businesses.

Bridge Rotary has raised more than $3,000 and plans to continue to efforts to fundraise from local businesses and larger national corporations in the city.

Even as restaurants struggle to remain profitable as they juggle limited capacity seating in the face of potential second waves of the virus, Samarth and his supporters firmly believe that local restaurants are an integral part of their city. They are determined to continue backing locally owned restaurants so that Fremont doesn’t become an urban jungle of large chain restaurants.

Going forward, Samarth is partnering with local charitable organizations serving the homeless and the hungry, old age homes and women shelters, to provide these vulnerable populations with fresh, healthy and nutritious food from local restaurants. Samarth plans to expand the mission of his project by giving bulk orders to restaurants and feeding needy or at risk populations in the community.

To learn more about the project and help Eat Safe Fremont, visit  www.eatsafefremont.org or contact eatsafefremont@gmail.com.

 

 

 

California’s Diversity Makes Accurate Census Difficult

California’s rich diversity of ethnic populations makes an accurate census count extremely challenging, says Karthick Ramakrishnan, founder and director of AAPI Data.

“California’s diversity is the source of our strength. There’s a lot that we gain from having the kind of racial diversity. At the same time, those factors make it more challenging to count,” said Ramakrishnan, who serves as the associate dean of the UC Riverside School of Public Policy, and professor of public policy and political science.

Ramakrishnan cited a lack of in-language resources, geographic diversity, including populations living in rural areas, and first-generation immigrants who may not understand the census process or its importance as barriers to getting an accurate count of California’s population.

Many immigrants also fear the information they share on the nine-question form may be shared with immigration enforcement authorities or the Internal Revenue Service. “It’s important to reassure them that all of the information they provide is protected by law,” and not shared with other agencies, said Ramakrishnan.

“The census is constitutionally mandated by the US Constitution to make sure that every person counts. So this includes citizens as well as non citizens regardless of their immigration status or what kind of visa that they have,” he said.

Reaching the Asian American Pacific Islander population poses some unique challenges, said the researcher, noting that a large percentage of the population of California are first generation AAPIs with limited English language proficiency.

“So it’s so important for us to make sure that we are reaching out to them in a language that they understand and that we’re using trusted messengers, people that they trust from their faith-based associations to nonprofits that serve them so that they can be reassured that this information is protected,” said Ramakrishnan.

The U.S. Census Bureau conducted a survey of Asian Americans, Blacks, Hispanics and whites two years ago.Two-thirds of Asian Americans surveyed said they were extremely to somewhat concerned that their data would be used against them.

About 43 percent of AAPIS surveyed said they would not likely fill out the Census form. Only 22 percent said they were familiar with the Census.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also made it harder to reach populations that have had a history of non-participation. “The disease and the economic fallout are hurting communities that are least likely to be counted by the census,” said Ramakrishnan, advocating for investments in health care and economic assistance for vulnerable communities.

Census data, collected every 10 years, is used to allocate federal resources and accurate representation in Congress. Businesses also use data from the decennial survey to determine where to set up shop.

As of early July, more than 46 percent of California households had filled out their Census forms, according to the California Census 2020 Campaign. San Mateo County had the highest response rate in the state, with over 72 percent of residents returning the survey, which can be mailed in or filled out online. Enumerators do go door to door to reach households who have not filled out their census forms.

Corona Virus Opens a Pandora’s Box of Scams

If Willie Sutton were alive, he wouldn’t be robbing banks, more likely he’d be a scam artist, siphoning off a portion of the almost $70 million that Indiana consumers alone have reportedly lost to fraud even before the COVID-19 pandemic opened up a pandora’s box of new scam opportunities.

“At the Federal Trade Commission, we always say the fraudsters follow the headlines,” explained Todd Kossow, Director of the Midwest Region of the FTC. “They take advantage of the major news stories of the day and find new ways to access consumer’s personal financial information. The corona virus pandemic has been no exception to that.”

Kossow’s remarks were delivered at an on-line convening for ethnic media primarily covering Indianapolis and nearby regions. In addition to FTC staff, presenters included representatives from state and local agencies responsible for consumer protection, as well as from non-profits like the AARP, the Better Business Bureau, and others on the frontlines of battling scams and deceptive marketing practices.

“Scammers are like vampires who bleed their victims not just of money but of hope and self-respect,” said conference moderator Sandy Close, director of Ethnic Media Services. Close urged media participants “to shine a light on these activities through your media coverage and your community service.”

Susan Bolin, from the Better Business Bureau, concurred with the need for increased media coverage and involvement. While acknowledging active media participation in Fort Wayne and Evansville, “we still need more help. Just imagine the impact that we can have if every media outlet partnered with us.” Ultimately, Bollin said she wants to make Indianapolis a scam-free zone.

The goal is a daunting one.

Scams that have proliferated since the pandemic include large up-front money payments to companies claiming they can assist homeowners to renegotiate mortgage payments they missed because of COVID linked job layoffs; or scams that promise small businesses an inside track to securing federal paycheck protection funds to retain employees.

“So what are the main types of COVID-19 related scams that we’re seeing?” Kossow asked. “Scammers who are pitching so-called treatments and cures for COVID-19 without any proof that they work. The FTC has sent warning letters to nearly 250 companies making such claims.”

Presenters cited several “red flags” typically associated with scams: run out and buy a gift card to make a payment; a money wire transfer is required; an upfront payment is necessary before a prize can be claimed; authentication of your bank account number or verification of your Social Security number as mandatory in order to speed or complete the application or funding process.

Several speakers said that humiliation over being scammed often discourages victims from reporting what happened. There’s also a sense that trying to recover the money is a hopeless task. This is particularly true with gift card transactions. At least with payments made on credit cards, victims have a bank record to point to in filing a fraud claim. Moreover, victims have a self-interest in reporting scams, Andrew Johnson, Chief of Staff of the FTC’s Division of Consumer Affairs, emphasized

“Since July, 2018, In just a two-year period, the FTC mailed $23.6 million to almost 140,000 people in the state of Indiana, which is pretty remarkable,” Johnson said. “Generally, when the FTC settles or wins a case, and we get money that we can return back to consumers, one of the main ways we determine who to send money to, is we look back at our database of who reported to us.”

One net result of the pandemic’s advent is a decrease in face-to-face counseling that would encourage reporting to the FTC.

Cheryl Koch-Martinez, who works at Indiana Legal Services, said her organization assists low-income residents in understanding their financial options and advising them on consumer fraud cases. Given the imperative for social-distancing, “face-to-face communication is just not there,” she said. Telephone and e-mail are inefficient substitutes for the sensitive conversations that need to occur.

Reverend David Green, Senior Pastor, Purpose of Life Ministry, shared the experience of a maintenance engineer at his church. Originally from El Salvador,

he immigrated to the United States 20 years ago and obtained citizenship. He sent $1,000 to purchase a trailer in Kentucky and then sought to make arrangements with the sellers to personally pick it up. “They said, ‘no,’” Green reported. “They said they needed to deliver it and that if he would go to PayPal and send $600 for the insurance on the delivery of the trailer, that when the trailer got delivered, he would get the $600 back.”

In this case, Reverend Green encouraged his church’s employee to file a report with the FTC and the Better Business Bureau after the seller would answer phone calls but promptly hang up.

Several speakers highlighted the debilitating effects of scams that prey on people’s loneliness. While romance scams come readily to mind, scammers also have used a victim to become unwitting money mules, someone who moves money to a third-party. The use of third parties makes the origin and movement of financial transactions more difficult for authorities to trace.

Such was the case Assistant U.S. Attorney MaryAnn Mindrum described of an elderly woman who was told she’d won the lottery and had to pay fees before she could secure her winnings. She did not win the lottery, lost a substantial amount in so-called fees, “but,” Mindrum explained, “she talked to the scammer for two years!” Mindrum said her office stepped in to end the relationship, extradited the scammer to the U.S. and successfully prosecuted him. The woman was not charged.

 

How We Come Together: Teen’s PPE Initiative

While young people are less likely to suffer the consequences of the coronavirus pandemic, it is their responsibility to protect vulnerable, immunocompromised communities. And that’s precisely what Presentation High School student Mitthra Senthil is trying to do. After the transition to distance learning, it would have been easy for Mitthra to focus on the onslaught of AP exams, finals, and projects that are typical of any high school workload. Instead, she directed her passion for STEM towards addressing the current deficiency in medical supplies. 

The coronavirus outbreak has threatened the resources, staffing, and support available to medical facilities all over the Bay Area. To date, there have been 2,120 confirmed cases in our community — a number that can only be the lowest possible estimate. According to the Los Angeles Times, healthcare and sanitation workers are being forced to reuse N95 masks, thus endangering the lives of the individuals trying to protect ours. Although Gov. Newsom recently announced a large purchase of masks for the state of California, the reuse of medical gear runs rampant in some of the area’s largest facilities. And healthcare workers are not the only ones in desperate need of masks. Shelters, soup kitchens, and food banks in California struggle to accommodate the growing population of homeless individuals vulnerable to the virus. 

It is amid this environment that Mitthra Senthil used her STEM and sewing skills to make masks of her own. “The idea came to fruition when Mitthra’s mother was at a grocery store and a few of the workers and customers asked where they could buy their own masks because they didn’t have access to reusable masks to wear – especially when working. So, with her grandmother (who taught her how to sew), Mitthra contacted family friends at hospitals and had them send an approved template/design that would be effective for all users”, says a representative from Presentation High School. 

With the help of her family, Mitthra has distributed 100 cloth masks to local hospitals, and more than 150 to homeless shelters and the general public. Even better, these masks are available to all communities. “The cost of the masks ($3) is put directly toward the purchasing of supplies.” Although the future of the pandemic is nebulous, it is heartening to know that young people are using the wealth of resources and knowledge available to them to bring out the best in our humanity. Mitthra continues to make masks for the Bay Area. To request masks, you can email mitthrasenthil@gmail.com or place an order on her website. 

Kanchan Naik is a junior at the Quarry Lane School in Dublin, California. Aside from being the Youth Editor at India Currents, she is also the Editor-In-Chief of her school newspaper The Roar and the Teen Poet Laureate of Pleasanton.

Racism Is The New Public Health Crisis

From Boston to San Bernardino, California, communities across the U.S. are declaring racism a public health crisis.

Fueled by the COVID-19 pandemic’s disproportionate impact on communities of color, as well as the killing of George Floyd in the custody of Minneapolis police, cities and counties are calling for more funding for health care and other public services, sometimes at the expense of the police budget.

It’s unclear whether the public health crisis declarations, which are mostly symbolic, will result in more money for programs that address health disparities rooted in racism. But officials in a few communities that made the declaration last year say it helped them anticipate the COVID-19 pandemic. Some say the new perspective could expand the role of public health officials in local government, especially when it comes to reducing police brutality against Black and Latino residents.

The declarations provide officials a chance to decide “whether they are or are not going to be the chief health strategists in their community,” said Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association.

“I’ve had a firm view [that] what hurts people or kills people is mine,” said Benjamin, a former state health officer in Maryland. “I may not have the authority to change it all by myself, but by being proactive, I can do something about that.”

While health officials have long recognized the impact of racial disparities on health, the surge of public support for the Black Lives Matter movement is spurring calls to move from talk to financial action.

In Boston, Mayor Martin J. Walsh declared racism a public health crisis on June 12and a few days later submitted a budget that transferred 20% of the Boston Police Department’s overtime budget — $12 million — to services like public and mental health, housing and homelessness programs. The budget must be approved by the City Council.

In California, the San Bernardino County board on Tuesday unanimously adopted a resolution declaring racism a public health crisis. The board was spurred by a community coalition that is pushing mental health and substance abuse treatment as alternatives to incarceration. The coalition wants to remove police from schools and reduce the use of a gang database they say is flawed and unfairly affects the Black community.

The city of Columbus and Franklin County, Ohio, made similar declarations in June and May, respectively, while Ingham County, Michigan, passed a resolution June 9. All three mention the coronavirus pandemic’s disproportionate toll on minority residents.

Those localities follow in the footsteps of Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, which last year became the first jurisdiction in the country to declare racism a public health crisis, citing infant and maternal mortality rates among Blacks. The county’s focus on the issue primed officials to look for racial disparities in COVID-19, said Nicole Brookshire, executive director of the county’s Office on African American Affairs.

Milwaukee County was training employees in racial equity and had launched a long-term plan to reduce disparities in health when the pandemic hit. “It was right on our radar to know that having critical pieces of data would help shape what the story was,” said Brookshire.

She credits this focus for the county’s speedy publication of information showing that Black residents were becoming infected with and dying of COVID-19 at disproportionate rates.

Using data to tell the story of racial disparities “was ingrained” in staff, she said.

On March 27, the county launched an online dashboard containing race and ethnicity data for COVID-19 cases and began to reach out to minority communitieswith culturally relevant messaging about stay-at-home and social distancing measures. Los Angeles County and New York City did not publish their first racial disparity data until nearly two weeks later.

Declaring racism a public health crisis could motivate health officials to demand a seat at the table when municipalities make policing decisions, and eventually lead to greater spending on services for minorities, some public health experts say.

The public is pressuring officials to acknowledge that racism shortens lives, said Natalia Linos, executive director of Harvard’s Center for Health and Human Rights. Police are 2½ times as likely to kill a Black man as a white man, and research has shown that such deaths have ripple effects on mental health in the wider Black community, she said.

“Police brutality is racism and it kills immediately,” Linos said. “But racism also kills quietly and insidiously in terms of the higher rates of infant mortality, maternal mortality and higher rates of chronic diseases.”

The public health declarations, while symbolic, could help governments see policing in a new light, Linos said. If they treated police-involved killings the way they did COVID-19, health departments would get an automatic notification every time someone died in custody, she said. Currently, no official database tracks these deaths, although news outlets like The Washington Post and The Guardian do.

Reliable data would allow local governments to examine how many homeless or mentally ill people would be better served by social or public health workers than armed police, said Linos.

“Even symbolic declarations are important, especially if they’re accurately capturing public opinion,” said Linos, who is running to represent the 4th Congressional District of Massachusetts on a platform of health and equity. “They’re important for communities to feel like they’re being listened to, and they’re important as a way to begin conversations around budgeting and concrete steps.”

Derrell Slaughter, a district commissioner in Ingham County, Michigan, said he hopes his county’s declaration will lead to more funding for social and mental health as opposed to additional policing. Slaughter and his colleagues are attempting to create an advisory committee, with community participation, to make budget and policy recommendations to that end, he said.

Columbus City Council members coincidentally declared racism a public health crisis on May 25, the day Floyd died in Minneapolis. Four months earlier, the mayor had asked health commissioner Dr. Mysheika Roberts for recommendations to address health issues that stem from racism.

The recent protests against police brutality have made Roberts realize that public health officials need to take part in discussions about crowd control tactics like tear gas, pepper spray and wooden bullets, she said. However, she has reservations about giving the appearance that her office sanctions their use.

“That definitely is one of the cons,” she said, “but I think it’s better than not being there at all.”

This story was produced by Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent program of the Kaiser Family Foundation.

A Family With Five Doctors & Two COVID Deaths

On the morning of April 1, Dr. Priya Khanna inched her way from the bedroom to the front door, using walls, doors and railings to hold herself up long enough to get to the stretcher waiting outside. She had been battling COVID-19 for five days and was struggling to breathe.

Her mother, also COVID-positive, watched helplessly as EMTs in full personal protective equipment guided Priya into the ambulance. Priya waved to Justin Vandergaag, a childhood friend walking alongside her. “I’ll see you later,” he said.

Ten days earlier, a similar scene unfolded when Priya’s father, Dr. Satyender Dev Khanna, was hospitalized for COVID-19.

The Khannas would soon suffer the most appalling of fates, as the two doctors from the same family encountered an illness against which they were fatally powerless.

Their story reveals the conundrum facing health care workers, who care for their patients while exposing themselves and their loved ones to risk. And it underscores how unprepared U.S. hospitals still were more than a month after news of community transmission of COVID-19 was first detected in the country.

COVID-19 has hit New Jersey hard, particularly in the north where the Khannas live. According to a database maintained by The New York Times, the state has recorded nearly 165,000 confirmed coronavirus cases and more than 12,300 deaths.

News of the pandemic had unsettled Priya, a 43-year-old nephrologist in the town of Glen Ridge. She suffered from a rare autoimmune disorder called small-cell vasculitis, and the medication she took to treat it compromised her immune system. She knew that if she contracted COVID-19 she would become very ill.

Priya, which means “beloved” in Hindi, had decided in college to become a doctor and graduated from Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences in 2003. Both her sisters were also doctors. She became certified in both internal medicine and nephrology, opened her own practice and was the director of two dialysis centers.

Priya Khanna (right) with younger sister Anisha Khanna-Sharma. (Courtesy of the Khanna family)

“She navigated the world with kindness and delight,” said a childhood friend, Laura Stanfill. She was “extremely selfless, a fiercely devoted friend and loyal,” said another, Melissa Auriemma. She gave long bear hugs and loved Lizzo, Hello Kitty, designer purses and anyplace with a beach.

Priya’s father fell ill in early March; the family is unsure how. Satyender, 78, was an immigrant from India who came to the U.S. with a medical degree and so little money that he did not know if he could afford the taxi ride to the hospital where he was to start his internship. In the 1980s, he became one of the first doctors in New Jersey to perform laparoscopic surgery, and was a trauma and general surgeon his whole career.

Five days after Satyender became sick, Priya’s mother, Kamlesh, a retired pediatrician, did, too. Priya, who lived with her parents, immediately isolated herself from them. She grew worried about her own health after a patient coughed directly in her face.

On March 20, Satyender was hospitalized, and a day later was placed on a ventilator. As a courtesy to Priya’s mother, the ICU physicians let her see her husband at the hospital he had worked at for more than 35 years. She suited up in her own personal protective equipment (PPE) and held his hand for a few minutes before being ushered away. It was a few weeks before what would have been their 50th anniversary.

“That was the last time she physically saw him alive,” said Dr. Anisha Khanna-Sharma, Priya’s younger sister and a pediatrician. “After that, we could only virtually see him on the iPad.”

Priya herself was taken to Clara Maass medical center, the 427-bed facility where her father was being cared for, on April 1. Because her sister Sughanda, an ER doctor, had her own full-body protective suit, she was able to gain better access than most visitors and found a situation reminiscent of a war zone.

Dr. Priya Khanna (seated) poses with friends Laura Stanfill (from left) Justin Vandergaag and Melissa Auriemma at her sister Anisha’s wedding in 2015. (Courtesy of the Khanna family)

There wasn’t enough proper PPE. Sughanda recalled intervening when the registration clerk, not wearing protective gear, leaned into Priya’s face to ask her questions. Priya didn’t receive a blanket or a pulse oximeter, and was not continuously connected to a patient monitor, the family said.

Sughanda and Anisha took turns FaceTiming with Priya. She was having trouble breathing, despite receiving 100% oxygen, and almost urinated on herself because she was too weak to walk to the common bathroom. She asked for a commode but never got one.

“They didn’t feed her,” said Anisha. “My sister didn’t get a meal at the hospital for the first 2½ days.” Instead, Anisha and Sughanda asked a nurse they knew to deliver food to her, and raised the alarm with hospital executives.

“Providing high-quality patient care is our priority, and that has never wavered even as we continue to treat those who are suffering from the coronavirus,” said spokesperson Stacie Newton. “While we do not comment on individual patients, we can assure you that all of our patients are treated with the utmost dignity and respect and any family concern is treated with attention, discretion, and privacy.”

Priya was weak but still reviewed patient files and texted with her replacement physician up until she went on a ventilator. Meanwhile, her sisters tried valiantly to find treatments. They put Priya and her father on a waitlist for the COVID-19 drug remdesivir. They sought and found hundreds of matches for an experimental treatment in which blood plasma from people who have recovered from COVID-19 is administered to patients.

Yet there were numerous bureaucratic delays. By the time the sisters were able to administer units to Priya and Satyender, it was too late, they said. Although it remains unclear at what point in the course of the illness the unapproved therapy is most helpful, Priya’s sisters are convinced their family could have benefited from earlier treatment.

“I think the doctors and nurses and staff did a phenomenal job in terms of doing what they could with what they had,” Sughanda said. “Was the hospital prepared for this? Absolutely not. Did they have enough resources to treat? Absolutely not. They did not have enough of anything to cover the surge of patients that were coming through the hospital.”

On April 13, Priya passed away, followed by her father on April 21.

After Priya died, Sughanda and Anisha both received packages in the mail of clothing Priya had bought for their children.

Every now and then, Auriemma, the childhood friend, rereads messages she sent Priya while she was in the hospital to cheer her up.

We gotta go to Oregon.

We gotta go out for lunch.

We gotta do our movie date.

“She was an excellent nephrologist. But it was short-lived,” said Kamlesh, Priya’s mother. “She touched so many lives, I can’t even tell you. She was the kindest, sweetest person I ever met in the whole world. I think that’s why God took her away from us. She was an angel.”

This story was produced by Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent program of the Kaiser Family Foundation.

What’s In The Pipeline To Revive Ethnic Small Businesses?

Main Street America, its plethora of largely minority-owned small businesses ravaged by the COVID-19 pandemic, will see opportunities to revive with the help of federal stimulus funding, a May 29 group of panelists concluded.

Speakers at the discussion, organized by Ethnic Media Services, included Rep. Ted Lieu, D-California; businessman and philanthropist Charles Phillips, director of the New York Federal Reserve Bank; venture capitalist Shelly Kapoor Collins, a member of California Governor Gavin Newsom’s Entrepreneurship Task Force; and Sumita Batra, CEO of ZIBA Beauty Salons.

More than 100,000 small businesses have had to shut their doors permanently, according to a study released in April by the National Bureau of Economic Research. Of the businesses it surveyed, 43% have closed temporarily and owners have laid off 40% of their staff.

Six out of 10 small businesses will close by Labor Day if the current environment continues, reports the National Federation of Independent Businesses. In California, 95% of businesses are classified as small businesses.

Congress’ $350 billion stimulus package — approved in April and known as the Paycheck Protection Program — is a loan program to help small businesses survive during the COVID 19 pandemic by providing eight weeks of payroll and some additional funds for operating expenses. The Small Business Administration defines small businesses as those with fewer than 500 employees.

Fourteen days after the program began, it ran out of funds. Money had been quickly gobbled up by larger businesses — many backed by venture capital — and by hotel and restaurant chains with fewer than 500 employees at various locations.

“It wasn’t even a fair fight,” said Phillips.

Larger entities had relationships with big banks and artificial intelligence bots that filled out loan applications, he explained. Smaller businesses, also known as micro businesses, normally are funded by Community Development Financial Institutions, not by large banks. Of the more than 1,000 CDFIs in the United States, only 90 participated in the first round of stimulus funding, said Phillips, noting that the process for applying was extremely difficult.

Many micro businesses are sole proprietorships, especially in the African American small business community. Such businesses were unlikely to receive PPP loans because they had no employees and thus no documented payroll. Phillips gave the example of a barbershop where the owner simply rents out chairs to barbers who are independent entities. For many micro businesses, payroll is not its largest expense, but the PPP program stipulates that 75% of the loan must be used to cover payroll.

Phillips expressed optimism for the second round of funding, an additional $484 billion approved by Congress in late April to keep the PPP program going. It set aside $60 billion to be distributed by smaller banks with less than $50 billion in assets.

In this round, 324 CDFIs are participating, and an additional $10 billion was set aside specifically to channel loans through them.

Loan amounts also have dropped, from $260,000 in the first round to an average $115,000, which means smaller businesses are applying and getting funded,  Phillips said. To date, about 4.5 million loans have been distributed.

Rep. Ted Lieu, who represents California’s 33rd Congressional District, said Democrats fought hard to make the second round of stimulus funding accessible to businesses with fewer than 20 employees. The challenge, however, lies in letting business owners know these funds are available.

Re. Lieu used his own immigrant parents, who ran a small gift shop as an example of a typical very small business: “We had no idea what a chamber of commerce was. We had no idea what really was happening in most of government. We were just trying to survive and try to sell gifts and make sure that we had money to make payroll,” he said.

Every member of Congress has a staff member dedicated to helping business owners manage their PPP loan applications, Rep. Lieu noted, and added that he is advocating for future rounds of stimulus funds. “We just have to provide additional sustenance to the American people, both to families and to businesses.”

Even if governments all across America lifted the stay-at-home orders, the economy would still be sluggish, he said. “People are simply not going to engage in a lot of activities that they previously did because they want to protect themselves and their families. That’s going to keep our economy slow until there’s a drug therapy or a vaccine.”

During the briefing, the congressman lambasted President Trump for refusing to wear a face mask: “I think it’s shameful and disgraceful of the president of the United States not to wear a mask in public and to post things on his social media that suggest people shouldn’t wear a mask. It is a ridiculous way to govern.”

Shelly Kapoor Collins, a general partner at the Shatter Fund, which invests in women-founded businesses, said even in a good economy, women get only 2% of venture capital funds. “So, can you imagine what will happen in a post COVID era?”

Collins, who also served in the Obama administration’s National Women’s Business Council, stressed the importance of ensuring that women have access to capital to start and grow their businesses. About 12.3 million businesses nationwide are owned by women. They employ nine million people and generate $1.7 trillion in revenue.

“If women continue to scale their businesses, we have the opportunity to grow our GDP by $500 billion,” Collins said.

The United States must have an economy that includes businesses owned by diverse founders, she said, “especially [in] minority communities and especially [by] women. It’s the right thing to do, without which we cannot have a full economic recovery.”

Sumita Batra shared the story of ZIBA Beauty Salons, a business her mother founded that brought the centuries-old beauty technique of threading to this country. In March, before Newsom issued his statewide stay-at-home orders, Batra made the difficult decision to close all 14 branches of her salon and laid off 144 employees. Their final paychecks came out of her personal savings.

She applied for a PPP loan when the program began and received funds 10 weeks later. Those funds can only be used for operations and payroll after receipt and not for past debts, such as unpaid rents or leases.

Touch-based services, such as threading and nail salons, will have a harder time recovering postpandemic. Batra said she will not re-open her salons until she can ensure that her employees and clients are absolutely safe. She advocated for having stimulus funds directed specifically to services like her own.

“Touch services coming back too soon will be one of the things that ends up spreading COVID,” Batra said.


Photo, Top: Charles Phillips, a director of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York (left); Rep. Ted Lieu, D-California. Bottom: Sumita Batra, CEO, Ziba Beauty Salons (left); venture capitalist Shelly Kapoor Collins, member of California Governor Gavin Newsom’s Entrepreneurship Task Force. (photos provided)

Building API Community Power

The Asian Pacific Fund (APF) held a virtual annual API Summit to highlight how the API (Asian Pacific Islander) community was responding to the devastating impact of the pandemic. Frontline organizations shared stories on the rise in xenophobia, access to healthcare, and recovery and rebuilding efforts. 

NBC’s Raj Mathai moderated the conference which was sponsored by Comcast/NBC Bay Area.

The API community has been hit hard, said Mathai, kicking off the summit with a reminder that the pandemic affected physical and mental health, and also cost us jobs, while the harassment of Asian Americans has grown exponentially.  Yet the most important response, he urged, was to remember the need to control the narrative of our story.  

APF President Audrey Yamamoto was excited to report that the COVID response fund had collected over $500k in support of  many API non-profits that have made “significant pivots to be able to meet the needs of our clients.” These organizations have countered the impact of COVID-19 on the community by creating food delivery programs, new food pantries, and building new websites to collect data and improve service, while reimagining their services for remote delivery.   

Yamamoto also reported that the historic “Give in May Campaign” fundraiser which honors API Heritage month,  raised over 165k to distribute over 92 organizations across the country. 

She cautioned participants about the unprecedented dangers they face as a community. The “unemployment rate for Asians is rising six fold – a faster rate than any other ethnic group”. In California the API death rate is also significantly higher than the general population, and harassment and racial discrimination is causing an added threat to mental health.  But Yamamoto remained hopeful, adding “we will find ways to step up and come together just as we are today to make sure that our most vulnerable get the support they need to be able to survive and thrive.” 

Keynote speaker Maulik Pancholy an Asian American actor, author and LGBTQ activist, described his experience growing up brown and bullied. “It was not exactly the easiest thing for me to be brown where I was growing up. If it was challenging being brown, you can also imagine how hard it was for me to realize that I was also gay.”  

Pancholy is best known for playing Jonathan on 30 Rock & Baljeet on Phineas & Ferb and recently published an award winning book The Best At It.  

He shared his gratitude for family role models who engaged in service and philanthropy and taught him to become a louder advocate for his community.  Today he lends his name to organizations and nonprofits that address issues about Asian American identity and being LGBTQ.

In 2014, Pancholy was appointed by President Obama to the President’s Advisory Commission to examine the wide prevalence of bullying and hate towards AAPI kids.  This led to the creation of the first ever AAPI (Asian American Pacific Islander) Anti-Bullying task force in the White House.  

Pancholy was also instrumental in creating the Act To Change initiative to end bullying for all youth including AAPI, Sikh, Muslim, LGBTQIA+ and immigrant youth.  It’s now a grass-roots non-profit that documents stories and provides support via social media and has recently launched a series of webinars called “Covid Convos”.Pancholy hoped that the healing power of sharing painful stories and celebratory power of sharing successes would empower young people “to tell the authentic story of who they are.”   

A panel representing Bay Area grassroots nonprofits discussed what Sherry Hirota – (CEO of Asian Health Services) called a perfect storm of immigrant bashing(Public Charge), COVID-19 and Anti-Asian attacks.

Hirota reported that after the lockdown, AHS health clinics  pivoted to telemedicine by purchasing laptops, mobile phones and data coverage. Their rapid response and radical transformation helped clinics return to 80% of normal visit volumes. Going forward, their solutions include telehealth, remote monitoring equipment and televised education and outreach.

According to Hirota, the AAPI community has a higher fatality rate than the average because they lack access to diagnostic tests and/or are more likely to die if infected. She believes there is a need for culturally appropriate and linguistically accessible public health testing and tracing, adding that, “We will not be victims, we need our own narrative.”

Since the outbreak, Chinese for Affirmative Action (CAA) has received over 1800 reports of hate directed at Asians (40% from CA with 40% – 19% from the Bay Area), says CAA Co-Executive Director Cynthia Choi. “We need to build solidarity within our community and across our communities to fight racism and structural inequalities.” 

Choi plans to fight racial discrimination and harassment with in languages resources, countering misinformation and propaganda that are primary drivers of hate, holding the government accountable for enforcing civil rights policies and challenging any policies that harm API communities.  

She believes that this is the time “to speak up, organize and prepare for the onslaught of Anti-Asian violence,” and to stand in solidarity with the black community, the LatinX, and Native American community, essential frontline workers, and people dying in prisons and detention.  “When we begin to do this, we will see real change and begin to heal our country,”  said Choi.

Sarita Kohli, the President & CEO of Asian Americans for Community Involvement (AACI), highlighted an underreported aspect of this pandemic – the increase in domestic violence for women sheltering in place with their abuser.  Kohli reported an increasing need for monetary support  and use of  SafeChat  by clients. AACI has expanded staffing for this program.

The summit also featured a fireside chat with Debbie Chang President & CEO of Blue Shield of California Foundation, who drew attention to the many issues being amplified by this pandemic. – inequities in how communities experience health, the vicious cycle of domestic violence, and the connections between economic inequality and poor health. 

“The pandemic is making visible tangible forces that have been at work in our communities and systems for generations,” said Chang.

The Blue Shield California Foundation is working on policy changes like paid leave for domestic workers and essential workers, and increasing outreach to immigrant communities.  

Chang is hopeful that solutions will be found in innovations sparked by this crisis, for example, SafeChat, “We need to keep looking for opportunities like that,” she added.

David Chiu, California State Assembly Member (AD17) and California API Legislative Caucus Chair, concluded the summit with a caveat.

“There is a lot to celebrate in the API community in the national and state political arena,” he said, but “2020 has shown us that we are still foreigners.  We are still viewed as the others.”

However, the API Caucus is working with the Newsom administration to publicize resources for those experiencing discrimination. They advocated for the first immigrant relief fund for Californians who cannot get unemployment assistance because of their immigration status.

Asian American legislators also are pushing for more funding to support efforts like Stop AAPI Hate, research the disparate impact of Covid-19, advocate for a racial bias taskforce, and bring together law enforcement, civil rights communities, and non-profits to coordinate efforts to address discrimination. 

“This moment has to be a wakeup call for our community.  Corona virus has laid bare the challenges we have before us,” said Chiu.

He  believes that the biggest challenge we face as a community “is how fractured we are.” But to build power as a community, Chiu believes, “We need to bring our voices together to speak as one.”

“I look forward to see us all rise together.”

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.

Edited by Meera Kymal, contributing editor at India Currents

 

Caught In The Grip Of A Triple Crisis

In the Grip of a Triple Crisis

The first week of June 2020 was cataclysmic for the US.  The unrelenting Covid pandemic continued to disproportionately impact people of color while the economic downturn exhibited Depression-era rates of unemployment and layoffs. In the aftermath of George Floyd’s death by a kneeling police officer, the country erupted in protests against persistent racism and racial injustice towards African Americans.

The events formed a triple crisis that slammed a nation grappling for ways to simultaneously stave off a deadly virus, an economic crisis and systemic racism in its police force.

How will the nation extricate itself from the grip of an unprecedented debacle and learn to move forward?

A panel of civil rights advocates and health experts shared their perspectives on next steps at a briefing hosted by Ethnic Media Services on June 5.

COVID19 is Spiking: The Facts

Covid-related infections and deaths continue to rise around the world said Dr. Tung Nguyen Professor of Medicine at University of California, San Francisco.

  • To date 6.5 million people have been diagnosed with Covid-19 and nearly 378 thousand deaths recorded worldwide.
  • In the United States over 1. 8 million infections and more than 107,000 thousand deaths have been reported.
  • Cases are rising in 17 states including California, Texas, Florida and North Carolina, and the CDC is forecasting nearly 118,000 to 143,000 deaths by June 27th.
  • And, a significant finding on ER data indicates that ER visits are declining, but it could simply mean that people with severe medical conditions unrelated to COVID19 are avoiding the ER and getting worse due to conflicting priorities.

Dr. Nguyen remarked that the large crowds protesting police brutality could contribute to a possible rise in infections. He recommended that police stop using teargas to dispel protesters because it causes coughing and teary eyes that could increase the risk of spreading COVID-19.

He also urged people to wear face masks, as over 72 studies of more than 25,000 patients proved that masks were effective in preventing infection, and that high risk individuals like healthcare workers should wear N95 rather than surgical masks for protection.

The CDC Director told Congress that race, ethnicity, age and zip code data must be added to testing collection to make testing more effective in addressing disparities.

On the treatment front, the good news said Dr. Nguyen, is that 17 vaccines are in human trials, with Moderna due to enter phase 3 testing in July. However, he warned against the use of hydroxychloroquine after exposure to COVID19, as studies show it does not prevent infection.

The Disease of Racism and Police Brutality

Dr. Nguyen described racism as a disease that inflicts health disparities to people exposure to it. Racism is similar to social determinants like  poverty, education, the environment and healthcare access,”  he said, adding that “chronic exposure to racism causes the body to change adversely to the release of stress, hormones, and neurotransmitters.”

“We also know that acute exposure to racism can lead to death,” stated Dr. Nguyen, “as in the case of the recent killings of George Floyd, Breona Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and others.”

In Nguyen’s view the pandemic has “severely stretched our dysfunctional systems – health, economical, legal and political, to their limits and broken them. We can no longer pretend that they are good enough. They were never good enough except for those of us who enjoy privilege.”

He also suggested that the pandemic had ripped off the ‘so called’ color blindness from our eyes so people can no longer pretend we all benefit or suffer in the same way. Racial and ethnic minorities, especially African Americans, suffer more from disparities in income equality, education and environment degradation, he said.

In fact, stated Nguyen, “One of 2000 black Americans have died in the pandemic, and their mortality rate is two to three times more than white people.” As a disparity expert, Nguyen was not surprised  because data shows that black people, even at high socio-economic levels, have shorter life expectancies than middle class whites.

However, he called for more and accurate data because for decades before the pandemic, data on racial and ethnic minorities has been insufficient.  “Whenever the data is not there, it’s because someone powerful does not care.” So it’s no accident, added Nguyen, that there are few minorities in positions of power.

“In the absence of data America can pretend there aren’t so many health disparities.”

The health implications of racism & police brutality

Nguyen called racism and police brutality disease vectors that need to be controlled and eradicated. “Statistics confirm that one out of 1000 black men can be expected to be shot at by police in their lifetime.”

The protests, he predicted, are beginning to look like interventions against the disease of racism.

Nguyen’s view was endorsed by the other panelists who discussed the need to reform law enforcement and systemic exclusionary practices.

Color consciousness not color blindness combats stereotypes

As the BLM movement gathers steam, “Nothing’s changed but what year it is.” said Professor Jody Armour. He described a futile cycle of  “wash, rinse, repeat” interventions initiated over the years to address systemic racism and brutality in the police force, but “which have solved nothing.”

Armour’s 1997 book  ‘Negrophobia & Reasonable Racism: The Hidden Costs of Being Black in America’, documents the repetitive sequence of commissions, public hearings, policy wonks, hashtags, implicit bias training, body cams, de-escalation, community policing and interventions that came to nought.

Fast forward to 2020. “That police department in Minnesota had all these interventions” noted Amor, and yet, “three officers stood by” as an officer kneeled on George Floyd’s neck.

“Black lives haven’t mattered since the inception of this nation”, remarked Armour, adding, “Black lives did not matter under Jim Crow.”  On Skid Row in Los Angeles, the largest homeless encampment in America, “75% of the faces are black”.

The Fix for Structural Racism

The fix is change at a fundamental level of policing said Armour. That means cutting back on the police department and its budget, and reallocating resources to schools, ‘houselessness’ and social services.

“Right now, these resources are being ‘sucked  up’ by law enforcement,” explained Armour. In LA, nearly 54% of the mayor’s staggering $5.5 billion budget went to the LAPD. “That money should be going to schools,” he urged.

“The trope for our problem is Hurricane Katrina when there was no collective empathy for the black lives standing in water up to their necks in the 9th Ward,” said Armour.

“There is relative indifference to the suffering of those who don’t belong to your ingroup.” In addition, police officers are insulated from accountability and transparency by Union Collective Bargaining Agreements.

The way forward is to revamp, test and reform how we hire Police Officers,” advised Armour. The solution is not technological intervention or policy tweets. He suggested that diverting funds to address disparities will drive better outcomes in health, violence and unemployment. In most cases violence is triggered by law enforcement of ‘low level, non-violent offenses.

“African Americans are being criminalized in schools,” he stated, creating a pipeline from juvenile hall to the  prison system.”

Police need to focus on murder, rapes, violent assault and robbery which are only ‘being solved at a 40-45% rate” in many cities because police work is being diverted from investigation toward proactive, “broken windows policing.”

“You can reduce police presence without reducing public safety,”  noted Armour. “When ‘Stop and Frisk’ was reduced in New York, the crime rate went down.

Before moving forward from the triple crisis,  Thomas Saenz, President,  Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), urged that an examination of the underlying culture in society and law enforcement was necessary.

“There are systemic discriminatory practices embedded in the culture that have clear exclusionary impact,” he said, though he finds it ironic that “today we are experiencing these crises under perhaps the most openly racist and exclusionary president.”

However, Saenz suggested that the culture in law enforcement has to change “through structural reform not only in how its financed but also in how we select and entrust with law enforcing our community.”

He also advised looking at a deeper level at our underlying culture that still accepts discriminatory, race-linked disparities that “ we perpetuate and facilitate,” if we cannot attribute them to intentionally and openly expressed racial discrimination.”

Steps taken to counter the pandemic at the federal level continue to “embed within them” discriminatory policies that excludes minorities, added Saenz.

Recent legislation excluded largely undocumented workers from receiving economic stimulus checks  because they pay taxes with an Individual Taxpayer id number. As a result, comments Saenz, every member of their families (including US citizen spouses and children) are also excluded .

“We know that that exclusion has a racially discriminatory impact particularly on Latin and Asian American communities,” said Saenz. The Department of Education under Betsy DeVos provided advice with clear racially discriminatory intent that prevents some immigrant students from receiving relief from federal allocated emergency financial aid that other students got.

Exclusionary practices with clear racially discriminatory impact, dehumanize people of color and demonize protestors who have “risen in righteous indignation against George Floyd’s murder,” said Saenz.

As the economy recovers and jobs are restored,  “We will see longstanding patterns of discrimination recur,” said Saenz. “White employees will be hired back first while African, Latino and Asian Americans will be hired later on.”

He cautioned that, “With these crises we are doing what we have too often done. We are continuing, perpetuating and lengthening our acceptance of ongoing discriminatory exclusions “because we cannot attribute them to blatant racism “even though we know they are driven by racist ideology.

This is a problem that will feed into the response and recovery of these crises, said Saenz.

Meera Kymal is a contributing editor at India Currents


Photo by Robert Metz on Unsplash

 

Draw The Lines That Shape Your Future

In 2018, Stephanie Hofeller, the estranged daughter of Republican strategist Thomas Hofeller, released files from her deceased father’s disk drives that eventually led to the Supreme Court decision to remove the controversial citizenship question from the Census.

The Hofeller files had a significant impact– they confirmed that politicians and political operatives were creating strategies to disenfranchise minority communities and manipulating redistricting laws to favor one race and one party.

Thomas Hofeller was credited with masterminding the 2001 and 2011 redistricting process for the Republican Party. He travelled the country wherever Republicans controlled the legislature and redistricting process, and rigged political maps to give Republicans an unfair advantage in winning elections and holding on to legislatures.

The citizenship question was born from Hofeller’s tactics to gerrymander voting districts in favor of the Republican party.

In Texas, Hofeller discovered that thousands of Latinos and minorities could be eliminated from the decennial by adding a citizenship question to the Census. In an unpublished study  he concluded that adding the citizenship question to the census would be ‘”advantageous to Republicans and Non-Hispanic Whites” when voting districts were redrawn.

Stephanie Hofeller shared this information with watchdog group Common Cause who added it to their legal fight challenging legislative maps her father had drawn for North Carolina. The information then made its way into lawsuits challenging the citizenship question at the Supreme Court, which eventually decided to axe the question from the Census altogether.

Political and gerrymandering schemes like these deter vulnerable minority communities from participating in the census, warned Kathy Feng of Common Cause in a briefing organized by Ethnic Media Services. She emphasized that politicians could exploit redistricting to skew power in their favor, making it increasingly important to ‘advocate vociferously’ for everyone to be counted in the census.

Feng urged communities to get involved in the redistricting process to increase their voting power and ability to elect a candidate of their choice.

As the nation grows more diverse, the changing face of America has to be reflected at every political level. Elected officials must voice the needs and concerns of the neighborhoods and communities they represent, instead of serving their own political interests.

When this does not happen, communities suffer.

What Redistricting Does

Voting districts are redrawn every ten years to reflect population shifts in communities across the country and ensure equal representation for all residents.

By law, once the Census is complete by December 31, the Census Bureau must release data on how many people live in each state and determine how many representatives will be allocated to each state in Congress.

Redistricting is an attempt to set the balance straight.

But when redistricting gets distorted, the imbalance can devastate communities.

Gerrymandering Hurts Communities

In 2012, Koreatown, the densely populated Korean American community in LA, was carved into four different districts along a valuable piece of real estate on the Wilshire Corridor that local politicians coveted for its donors, businesses and development prospects.

Koreatown is a largely immigrant, non-English speaking community that fell prey to politicians who illegally gerrymandered district boundaries, and formed voter blocks based on race, to give themselves the advantage in future council elections.

Despite appeals challenging the division, recounts Feng, during the 9/11 media blackout, the legislature split the community “into four different pieces behind a cloak of secrecy,” denying Koreatown residents a chance for more balanced and greater political power.

In another example of unfair redistricting, Watts, a predominantly African American and Latino community in SoCal was hit by a freak snowstorm in 2003, and appealed to congressional, assembly and senate offices for emergency aid. At the time Watts was split into three different districts and residents were told, “We don’t really represent you.” Feng described how residents “were essentially ping-ponged from one office to another and it took more than a week for the state to finally declare an emergency.”

If the communities in Watts were combined into a single district, they would have had enough voice to demand the state and federal help they deserved.

“The districting process not only can determine which candidates will win in specific districts, but also can determine which party ultimately controls our local, state, and federal legislatures,” writes Douglas J. Amy,  a leading expert on electoral voting systems at Mount Holyoke College. “In a very real way, then, the political manipulation of district lines devalues the vote and undermines the democratic process.”

Census Challenges Impacting the Redistricting Process

Redistricting can be complicated by populations shifting across district and state lines over a ten year timeframe, but this year operations have been hobbled by the unprecedented restrictions imposed by the coronavirus pandemic.

People remain hard to count due to COVID-19

The Census Bureau faces a challenging task counting everyone with quarantines keeping people isolated and out of reach. If enumerators cannot gather data from hard to count, quarantined households, an accurate census count may be impossible. The decennial could exclude people who don’t self-respond because they have no computer or broadband access, and  “others may not even be sure about responding,” said Feng.

The Census Bureau has extended the timeline for data gathering through October, and redistricting could begin by July 31, 2021.

But it’s unlikely that lines can be redrawn in time before the next primary elections for federal and state candidates. 

The US population is on the move

Last year, the Census Bureau released data showing that the US population was moving southwards.  UC Berkeley reported that  the California housing crisis created an exodus from the Golden State as a shortage of affordable homes and low rents forced middle and low income people inland and to the south.

“In a recession or when times are hard, people move,” commented Feng.

Migration has an impact on how many seats are apportioned to each state for congressional representatives, because district lines have to be redrawn to reflect revised population counts.

As long as California’s population remains static, the state will retain its current quota of 53 representatives. But if the census count reveals a decline in population as people move to other states, CA will lose congressional seats. Projections from Election Data Services indicate that Texas and Florida are on track to gain congressional seats as more people move south. Between 2010 to 2019, cities in Texas –  Houston, San Antonio, Austin, Fort Worth and Dallas – added the most people.

However, redistricting lines were drawn ten years ago and do not accurately reflect the current numbers of residents – populations shrink or increase as people move, are born or immigrate in each district.

“Ultimately you want to make sure that each district has an equal number of residents.” confirmed Kathy Feng. Essentially each district must have the same voice when it comes to electing their representatives, not just in Congress, “but all the way down to the state legislature, city council, and school board.”

The term ‘resident’, Feng clarified, means every citizen, immigrant, and undocumented person in the district, not “just the number of voters.”

Reform Redistriction

Traditionally, legislators were responsible for redrawing district lines, a practice that Feng called “self-serving” because legislators were influenced by partisan interests or preserving their own ability to rerun for office.

California led redistricting reform by selecting 14 independent commissioners from diverse communities, to inform the redistricting process by gathering input from public forums around the state. Citizen commissions offer communities an opportunity to share information and form districts based on where they reside.

In Culver City, “People lined up as if they were going to a rock concert rather than a public hearing” about their community,” recalls Feng.

California’s award winning initiative has set the national standard for independent redistricting through public engagement. Nine states have followed its lead. Michigan is giving power back to communities by adopting new rules to allow for the creation of a citizen’s commission to redraw lines.

By standing up to be counted, people could eliminate partisan gerrymandering in their districts and shape the future of their communities.  Equal representation from redistricting will empower minority communities if they choose to participate more actively in the census.

Meera Kymal is a contributing editor at India Currents


Coverage for Census 2020 has been facilitated through a grant from the United Way Bay Area.

 

image: Elkanah Tisdale, Wikimedia

images: Kathy Feng, Common Cause

Hate Unmasked In America

“You are the most selfish f—ing people on the planet.”

I jerked my head to the left, where I saw a neighbor glaring at us from his driveway while unloading groceries from his trunk.

“Where’s your f—ing mask?” he said. “Unbelievable.”

 

Marigold Ganz, 3, wore this mask for five minutes outside and then threw it away. We haven’t been able to find it since. In the background is her grandfather, Jovit Almendrala, trying his own mask out for the first time. (Courtesy of Anna Almendrala)

My jaw dropped. I had just walked three blocks home with my toddler and my dad in our leafy, mostly empty Los Angeles neighborhood because my kid had thrown a tantrum in the car.

And we had forgotten our masks. Four days earlier, Mayor Eric Garcetti had ordered protective face coverings anytime we left home, not just when we entered essential businesses.

I pointed out my house to the neighbor to explain how close we were, just a few doors down from him. He cut me off.

“I don’t give a f– where you live, and I don’t give a f– what your reason is.”

Then my dad jumped in. “Sorry, sir, we forgot our masks. I’m sorry, sir.”

Still, the man didn’t soften.

“You should be sorry. And you should make her be sorry, too,” he gestured toward me. After a few more agonizing seconds, he dismissed us.

Our neighbor’s mask, by the way? It was off his face, hanging loosely around his neck. All the better to shout at us.

As a health care reporter, I had covered America’s evolution on masks as the coronavirus spread across the globe. Back in January, I wrote an article about why Chinese immigrants insisted on wearing surgical and construction masks in the U.S., even though it went against official health recommendations at the time. In February, I wrote about Asian families in California clashing with schools over whether their children should be allowed to wear masks in class.

At that time, Asian people wearing masks were targets for verbal and physical abuse. Attackers saw masks on Asian faces as signs of disease and invasion; people were punched and kicked, harassed on public transit, bullied at school and worse.

Now, of course, masks are the norm. And they’ve become more than just personal protection; they are symbols of courtesy and scientific buy-in. They have, to some extent, also become political signifiers. In a new poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation, 70% of Democrats said they wear a protective mask “every time” they leave their house, versus 37% of Republicans. (Kaiser Health News, which produces California Healthline, is an editorially independent program of KFF.)

After our verbal beatdown, my dad and I walked home stone-faced, and then retreated to our separate rooms to nurse our wounds.

I have no idea if the neighbor’s comments had a racist undertone. But it felt like the times in my childhood, first in New Zealand, then in a Bay Area suburb, when I had seen my Philippines-born parents, stunned and silent, get dressed down or humiliated by angry, callous white people. Now it was my 3-year-old daughter’s turn to see me dumbstruck. As I began telling my husband the story, I started crying so hard that I got a headache.

After my tears came reflection, and an attempt at empathy.

My neighbor was obviously scared. He was older, and potentially more medically vulnerable. His trunk had been packed with overstuffed shopping bags ― probably enough food for weeks, to avoid leaving his house.

He had just come from the grocery store, an enclosed space full of things and people that could potentially infect him. I understand the stress that comes with shopping during the pandemic.

Like many of us, my neighbor could be struggling with how to live in mortal fear of the coronavirus. And for him, at least that morning, that struggle got the better of him.

Later that day, I wrote the neighbor a card introducing ourselves. I apologized for making him feel unsafe and acknowledged that he was right about the masks. But I also said he had unfairly used us as a target for his fear and frustration, and I told him I was shocked and saddened he would treat a neighbor with so much hate. I haven’t heard back from him.

My dad spent the rest of that morning praying that the man didn’t get the coronavirus — lest he blame us and all Asians, forever.

Since that day, no one in my family has left the house without a mask on their face, and I’m anxious to train my daughter to wear one, although she resists it the way she has refused hats and headbands in the past.

We can’t stop noticing that most other exercisers and dog-walkers in our neighborhood ― all white ― fly past us without them. They don’t seem to worry about getting caught on the wrong side of whatever America happens to believe about masks on any given day. But my family can’t risk it.


This story was produced by Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent program of the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Images (Courtesy of Anna Almendrala)

Sweet Sixteen In Quarantine

I turned sixteen a week ago. I spent my birthday in the sweltering yet comforting solitude of my bedroom trying to prevent my English teacher from finding out and avoiding awkward attempts by her to acknowledge it by making our class sing to me. I also tried a Zoom peer review with a friend.

It’s finals season for me. So no matter what, I will probably be doing homework through my birthday for the next couple of years, as it always falls right before finals. 

It was a busy birthday.  I was studying for the last trig test and the last chem quiz of the year, doing Spanish practice activities, and brainstorming less-than-dumb ways to actually finish my photography assignment.

But somehow this year, I felt more alone than ever. And I’m including the birthday when I cried in a bathroom at school because I was so embarrassed about a bad assignment (sixth-grade Kaavya was a weird kid!)

Two of my friends were sweet enough to drop by with gifts (a Tupperware of brownies and a bunch of snacks, bless their hearts), and I will love them forever for that. But I was still pretty much stuck at home all day.

Turning “sweet sixteen” in quarantine was not what I expected. 

At the very least, I hoped that I could go out with friends, even if we didn’t go all-out. Ideally,  that would be eating exorbitant amounts of ice cream with the monthly Baskin Robbins deal (a dollar per scoop is too much of a bargain to pass up) or drinking bubble tea in the late spring sunshine. We’d probably be pretending we weren’t stressed about finals either. That’s okay, though.

Admittedly, I shouldn’t complain. On my birthday, I was quarantined with my family of five, which helped alleviate the irritation of being stuck with one person for too long. And there was my favorite thing alive, Luna, my cousin’s dog, adorable, fluffy, and faster than any person I’ve met. 

But it just doesn’t feel like your birthday without seeing your friends.

The night before I turned 16, I watched both Mamma Mia movies with friends and they sang me happy birthday at midnight, which I loved.

The thing is, my birthday has never been my favorite day. I don’t like the awkwardness of happy birthday greetings and teachers trying to get my classes to sing to me. I do appreciate family and friends buying me books and being able to choose the cake.

But I don’t like getting older. I would’ve gladly stayed six years old, when I could read all day and get complimented for it. Today, being productive means ACT prep, schoolwork, debate, summer courses, and something else I’m probably still forgetting.

Or, I’d much rather be in the last couple months of being fourteen last year when I was riding high off the end of debate season, good test scores, and good mental health.

Quarantine has worsened that regret of getting older. The last three months have not felt like actual months, but just lapses in time that may or may not have happened. My birthday was just the frosting on the cake (cue groans about how bad this pun is).

I’m sixteen though. Not much can change that. Unless I get in some odd Benjamin Button situation or the time travel mishaps in Avengers: Endgame.

Age is just a number, I guess. Sixteen is only significant for being four squared.

There’s always next year. And the year after.

Kaavya Butaney is a sophomore at Los Altos High School in Los Altos, CA. She writes for her school newspaper, The Talon, and loves speech and debate and choir. Kaavya is an intern at India Currents.

Edited by Meera Kymal, contributing editor at India Currents.


Image Credit: Bikki, Pixabay

Image Credit: Wokandapix, Pixabay