Amanda Rosa, New York Times, May 5, 2021
Since last year, Phung Nguyen, 77, feared the worst would happen if she fell ill with Covid-19. She lives alone in the Bronx, lost contact with her daughter years ago and only speaks Vietnamese.
When she heard of a vaccine that protects against the virus, she was determined to get it. But with limited ability to understand English and an eye condition that caused her vision to deteriorate, she needed help setting up an appointment. So, she turned to Mekong NYC, a small nonprofit that serves the Southeast Asian community in the city.
Mekong NYC is one of several community-based organizations that have been instrumental in helping Asian-American communities schedule vaccine appointments and translate Covid-19 information accurately. Months before city and state vaccination sites allowed for people to walk in without an appointment, these nonprofits had been working overtime to get shots in arms.
In New York City, vaccination efforts have fallen short in some immigrant and minority neighborhoods. Organizers say many people would like to get vaccinated but could not schedule appointments or find answers to their questions. Many immigrants, organizers said, incorrectly assumed they were ineligible.
But Asian-Americans are the most vaccinated demographic group in New York, according to city data. Sixty-eight percent of the city’s adult Asian population, which is over 680,000 people, has received at least one dose. White adults in the city are the next highest at 49 percent.
The numbers may reflect the hard work of the community-based organizations, which have taken on the brunt of outreach into these neighborhoods.
Despite the seemingly remarkable vaccination rate, many New Yorkers of Asian descent face a laundry list of complications that impedes vaccine access: immigration status, language barriers, lack of reliable internet and fear of violence.
The nonprofits have been working against the backdrop of a nationwide surge in anti-Asian attacks. This year alone, the New York Police Department is investigating or has solved about three dozen bias crimes against Asian-Americans that took place through the first quarter. In 2020, there were 28 reported anti-Asian hate crimes in the city, up from three the previous year.
The barriers can easily discourage people who do not speak English and lack technology skills, said Mx. Cowen. The threat of violence has been a “huge deterrent” in getting seniors vaccinated.
“We have seniors that have been eligible for the vaccines but will not leave their houses to get it because they are terrified,” said Mx. Cowen.
The glut of websites and providers to schedule vaccine appointments were notoriously confusing — even for English speakers — and city health sites suggested using a Google Translate plug-in for other languages, which sometimes mistranslates, Mx. Cowen added.
Chhaya Chhoum, Mekong NYC’s executive director, felt disheartened after taking her father and aunt to the mass vaccination site at Yankee Stadium. She planned to interpret for her relatives, who do not speak English, but she was not allowed inside. She had brought her laptop with her, which was against stadium rules.
Her father and aunt, who are in their 60s and from Cambodia, called her from inside to interpret over the phone. No Khmer interpreters were available, she said.
Data on Asian-Americans is not typically disaggregated, meaning Asian and Pacific Islander identities are often lumped together and not differentiated by ethnicity or nationality.
In December 2019, months before the virus spread throughout the state, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo vetoed a bill that would require state agencies to collect demographic data on many Asian ethnicities. This year’s state budget included $3 million to fund disaggregation in Asian-American data.