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Layerings of risk: researchers document the experiences of racialized communities during COVID-19

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Thursday, March 11, 2021

While cases of COVID-19 continue to mount around the world, many communities face an additional, more insidious threat: "the virus of racism." Researchers across Canada have been examining the nature of race-based discrimination and its impacts, particularly on East Asian communities in Canada, throughout the pandemic.

Based in academic fields as diverse as administrative studies, sociology, social work, and English and cultural studies, scholars are working alongside Chinese diaspora communities to discover how to best support their physical and mental health, and sense of belonging, during this pandemic and in public health crises to come.

Tracking the experiences of East Asian seniors

Dr. Christine Ann Walsh, Professor of Social Work at the University of Calgary, alongside graduate researchers Qianyun Wang and Jacky Ka Kei Liu sought to learn about the specific experiences of older immigrants within Alberta's Chinese diaspora community. After interviewing more than a dozen seniors in Calgary area, they began to better understand their unique intersectional challenges as both immigrants and seniors in the context of COVID-19, and found an immense appreciation for their resourcefulness and resilience.

When we spoke to Liu about the experiences of these seniors, technology was a recurring theme. Whereas the daily routines of many of the research participants formerly involved going for walks and enjoying coffee with friends, these social activities have now been replaced by WeChat calls and other forms of digital communication. On one hand, the physical world they inhabit has gotten smaller, but as a generation who retains strong connections to their home country, embracing technology has meant the opportunity to connect with friends and family in Canada and overseas—a crucial line of support as the pandemic causes them so much anxiety.

As older adults who are high-risk, "there's a lot of fear" surrounding COVID-19, Liu explained. Many in this community are taking further precautions than they have been asked to by public health officials in order to stay safe. Older adults who live with their families often have significant support with essential tasks like buying groceries and attending medical appointments, but those without such support systems face additional pressures, such as having to grocery shop early in the morning when stores are less busy, even if that means venturing out in freezing temperatures.

When they do go about public activities, many describe experiences brought on by a confluence of ageism, discrimination and racism. "It's very subtle and implicit," explained Liu, recounting the experience of one woman who, immediately after boarding a bus donning a mask, witnessed the only other rider immediately leave.

Anxieties are further stoked by uncertainties surrounding international travel. While many have eagerly embraced technology to maintain some sense of normalcy, they still highly value face-to-face interactions and worry about when they will get to see their friends and family in China. They don't want to face the risks of air travel, yet express fear that they "won't get a second chance" to see their loved ones abroad.

Many of these pandemic-related pressures are unique, but these seniors reminded the research team that "they've been through a lot" and they know they're capable of overcoming challenges. This resilience built-up over generations continues to support their ongoing adaptability during COVID-19. As Liu and his team seek to raise awareness of the unique challenges faced by senior immigrants, they also want to highlight their ongoing adaptability and capacity to support each other.

Whose stories will be included in our public memory of the pandemic?

Dr. Chandrima Chakraborty, a Professor of English and Cultural Studies and Director of the Centre for Peace Studies at McMaster University, is taking a distinctly humanities-based approach to investigating one of the most subtle forms of discrimination —the racism persistent in official public discourse.

Informed by earlier research into the experiences of families who lost loved ones in the Air India bombing of 1985, Chakraborty has long been interested in questions of public memory and cultural history; particularly, which stories and moments get elevated into national conversations and which "stay at the lens of the local?"

She explained that by looking back through history, we could see the sociopolitical through-lines of racist characterizations that are increasingly visible during COVID-19, especially those relating to the East Asian community. Canada's Chinese Immigration Act of 1885 contained discriminatory characterizations of Chinese people that have persisted through generations. In moments of crises, explained Chakraborty, "the public latches onto these narratives."

It is important for researchers, and everyday Canadians alike, to critically examine these narratives, and to ask questions of what we are hearing in the media and statements from public officials. Chakraborty’s research will be posing questions like, “How has the story of COVID-19 in Canada been framed within mainstream media coverage? How do existing socio-political contexts produce or exacerbate the effects of COVID-19 on racialized communities?”

How this subtle messaging reaches both East Asian and South Asian communities (the groups this project will focus on) has significant ramifications for their wellbeing, Chakraborty explained. In light of ongoing discrimination, “they’re reshaping their everyday life” to avoid feeling targeted.

At the end of the day, being critical of our sociopolitical discourse at moments like this is about ensuring racialized Canadians have a sense of inclusion and belonging in the nation they call home. As instances of anti-Asian discrimination are increasingly visible during COVID-19, Chakraborty poses the question of how we can all work toward creating a sense of security for racially marginalized Canadians?

Chakraborty is in the early phases of this research, but she already has plans for how to mobilize the knowledge and learnings arising from it. Chief among them is an opportunity for her informants to share their stories publicly, to have their voices heard and their experiences witnessed without being mediated by journalists or academics.

For so many community-driven research projects taking place right now (check out our previous coverage of research projects examining COVID-19's impact on the East Asian Community), this remains a central and inspiring motivation: bringing the experiences, challenges, capacities, and resilience of marginalized communities to the forefront of urgent and emerging dialogues. "It's at moments of crisis that [subtle] racist actions become legible," highlights Chakraborty. Perhaps by listening, and working together with communities, this pandemic moment can also be a rallying point for racial justice.

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