Language Barriers, Technology Hurdles And Limited Transportation Hurt Asian American Texans' Access
Yong Son Swindale, 71, has been living fearfully of the coronavirus for the past year, only leaving her house in Houston for groceries and doctor appointments. She has lung cancer. Her husband, 82, has heart problems and Alzheimer’s Disease.
The two have been eligible for the vaccine because of their age and health conditions since January. But they only just got on a waitlist this month, after a local pastor reached out and registered them.
The Swindales, who are Korean and only speak limited English, couldn’t otherwise navigate the system to get registered for a vaccine.
Asian people across the country and in Texas have already experienced an increase in racist attacks since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic and now, many are finding themselves left out as the vaccine rollout trundles forward. From refugee communities across the state to older people living in low-income housing, many face language barriers, technological difficulties and lack of access to transportation, leaving community organizations to ensure their most vulnerable groups do not fall through the cracks.
Asian Americans compose around 5% of the Texas population, and their vaccination rates have been higher than their population’s share at 6%. But the wealth disparities in the Asian American community are wider than ever.
Asians are the most economically divided group in the U.S., according to a 2018 study from the Pew Research Center. The gap in the standard of living between those making the highest and lowest incomes nearly doubled from 1970 to 2016.
“A lot of Asian folks in Austin are highly educated and wealthy, but there's a huge, huge income gap between groups in the Asian community, they're not really all a monolith,” said Hailey Easley, executive director for the Austin Asian Community Health Initiative. “The folks that aren’t [getting vaccinated] are the most vulnerable, who have almost no access without some sort of extra support.”
Savannah Bernal said her in-laws both are essential workers at an Austin H-E-B, but both speak minimal English and only received their first dose of the Moderna vaccine because a colleague approached and set up an appointment for them.
“It's really difficult because a lot of people are getting the vaccines through word of mouth or knowing someone who knows where they have extra vaccines,” Bernal said. “That's the way my dad, who's a teacher, got it. That's the way my aunt and uncle got it, through a small church. Whenever you're in a smaller community with a smaller Asian community, then it's harder.”
Hyunja Norman, president of the Korean American Voters League in Houston, has partnered with local community health centers to provide vaccinations for people like Swindale. So far, she has vaccinated around 100 of Houston’s Korean community and hopes to start weekly vaccination drives for those remaining.
“I feel frustrated because we do not speak English, but we are always overlooked,” Norman said. “Our community does not go to the government and say, ‘We need your help.’ So the most vulnerable members of our community suffer. But I have to speak out — we need help.”
Just shy of half of Texas households that the American Community Survey labeled as “speaking English less than very well” speak in Asian and Pacific Islander languages, according to a report from the Texas Governor’s office.
Some county public health authorities across Texas have representatives for Asian communities and translate materials into multiple languages, but Norman said her community struggles to reach these representatives during urgent times.
Dizhi Marlow, a spokesperson for Harris County Public Health, said the authority translates materials into languages including Spanish, Vietnamese, Mandarin, Korean and Arabic and has a call center for those struggling with technology. Houston is one of the most diverse cities in the U.S.
“We do recognize that some services and programs may not reach those populations as conveniently as they do for other people,” Marlow said. “With COVID, we've been trying very hard with outreach … We understand there are challenges. So, we're trying to operate in a way that is most equitable.”
Easley said her organization serves clients who don’t speak English and have limited literacy, many arriving to the U.S. on refugee status. She said there are many more who don’t know about the organization, but finding them is a challenge.
Easley said the city of Austin recommends people who don’t speak English call 3-1-1, but the number has long waiting times. She said the city granted her organization funds to help with vaccine outreach efforts.
The coronavirus has ravaged much of the low-income Vietnamese community in Houston, as large families live together in smaller areas and when one person contracts the virus, the entire families are affected, said Teresa Trinh, president of the Vietnamese Culture and Science Association in Houston.
Trinh said her organization has worked with the city of Houston and Harris County Public Health to register more than 600 people in her community, and she has had the most success setting up vaccine appointments at Walmart locations.
A lot of the members of her community are first or second generation immigrants with blue collar jobs who have been forced to work through the pandemic, Trinh said.
“This is something that is a passion of our younger members, and it greatly warms my heart that they've taken on this task,” Trinh said. “They've coordinated amongst themselves, recruited other young people to join in their efforts, and they are making a great difference in our community.”
Whitney Hicks’ Korean grandmother lives in Austin and hasn’t been able to get vaccinated, but Hicks hopes to get her immunized at the University of Texas at Austin campus, where Hicks is a student.
“Texas said the older population can get their vaccines, but how are you going to get them their vaccine?” Hicks, 18, said. “How are they supposed to make it to those spots, who are they supposed to contact and get this information from? Everyone knows they're not so tech savvy, and a lot of people can't drive.”
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