Disparate Realities

Watching the Pandemic from a Split Screen

My phone rang as I waited for my family’s faces to appear on the screen. My aunt answered, but the first face I saw was that of my second cousin, just a few months old, blinking at me. Hi, baby! I greeted her in Jarai, our native language. This was the first time I’d seen her awake. My aunt passed the phone to my great aunt, an elderly woman, who waved at me. I waved back. I then said hello to my aunt’s son, my slouchy cousin who showed his face only briefly before disappearing into the kitchen. 

Our calls always follow this pattern. I would ring my aunt on Messenger and do a round of greetings to extended family members: baby cousins, teenage cousins, aunts and uncles, elders. We would exchange questions about work, school, and when I would be visiting next. After gushing over the baby some more, I asked my aunt if our family was well. 

Doing well, she told me, but the kids aren’t in school. When I asked why, she replied simply, Coronavirus.

It was February 2020. I was calling my relatives in Vietnam from my home in North Carolina. I was glad to hear that Vietnam was being so proactive in preventing the spread of COVID-19. I couldn’t imagine it: closing schools and keeping children home while adults continued working. Considering that my family lived in rural towns, I worried how they might fare; how my cousins would keep up with school, and how my aunt and uncles would sustain their farms. 

I pictured my cousins, far more independent than I ever was, occupying their time with schoolbooks and games. Not every household in their town owned a computer or had Wi-Fi. The remote learning that American children have come to know is unthinkable in rural Vietnam. What’s more, the government began banning large social events and fining people for gathering. This included religious services, which I knew would have a toll on my family. 

Even before the United States fell into a pandemic, I began watching it unfold globally through a split screen: my life here and my family’s life in Vietnam. The term “Coronavirus” had been buzzing around my college campus and the office where I interned, but I paid little attention to it. It’s like the flu, I’d heard a friend say once. I ran with it, living my life business as usual while my family in Vietnam managed the disruption of theirs. Just a month after our Messenger call, my college extended our spring break by a week. Students rejoiced while I grew anxious for how the rest of my senior year would unfold. The question of whether we would return to campus for classes, let alone hold a graduation ceremony, hung in the air. How unaware we were that this was just the first domino of a devastating pandemic.

Now, as states across the country reinstate restrictions they lifted just a few months ago, Vietnam and other developing countries struggle to control the spread of the Delta variant, especially with such a low supply of vaccines. This is especially unfortunate considering Vietnam made headlines last year for having one of the world’s most effective responses to COVID-19. The country’s low infection rates seemed like a stroke of luck to baffled Westerners, but understanding the context surrounding their response is necessary: 

“Consistently high political attention to infectious disease and institutional capacity in public health led to a prioritization of preventive health measures, aided by political buy-in from and implemented by means of the structure of the Vietnamese state.” 

— Emma Willoughby, Brookings.edu

When the first two cases were confirmed in Vietnam in January 2020, the government quickly took action by increasing entry-screening measures and limiting gatherings. By March, after cases rose due to inbound travel, they closed their borders and paused international flights. In contrast, it wasn’t until late March that North Carolina, my home state, issued a statewide Stay at Home Order. My family and I were pulled out of school and work, and the nation went into lockdown, as did many other countries last spring. Vietnam, however, was able to reopen schools and businesses by May. 

Also in May, North Carolina lifted the Stay at Home Order, while enforcing social distancing, face masks, and a ban on gatherings. Despite these restrictions, gatherings persisted and fervent anti-maskers refused to wear a mask. Even those who wore one sometimes did so incorrectly. 

Despite their early success controlling the virus, this year Vietnam has experienced a major Delta variant outbreak, skyrocketing their cases from 3,000 to over 200,000 in just three months. The vaccine rollout, which has been slow, only began in July. With limited vaccines, health equipment, and personal protective equipment, the country is dangerously vulnerable.

Prior to this outbreak, Vietnam leaned heavily on the cooperation of citizens to control the virus, a strategy that might have never worked in the United States. The short of it is, while Americans panicked and hoarded toilet paper, Vietnam was able to gain the trust of their citizens. The government employed consistent messaging and even used a propaganda-style campaign that united people to “beat” the virus, as they would beat any other national threat. We’ve seen parallels to this campaign here in the United States in the TV commercials and posters telling us to Stay Home, Save Lives and Spread Love, Not the Virus. However, unlike Vietnam’s population, Americans distrust not only our government, but also each other.

Growing up, my parents instilled the collectivist culture of their homeland in me: family first, and always be helpful and generous to your community. As I got older, I had to reckon with this culture clashing within America’s individualistic culture: every person for themselves. This clash has never been so overt, and dangerous, than in the last year. While Americans lived with an unhealthy disregard for safety, not only their own but also the world’s, I and so many others in the diaspora have had to cope with the virus impacting our families here and abroad. Moreover, producer and reporter Ericka Cruz Guevarra refers to this phenomenon as watching a “twisted split screen reality” of the pandemic: living in a country where thousands of vaccines go unused while witnessing our loved ones in developing countries experience scarcity.

The American response to the virus has been nothing short of frustrating. Our government’s inefficiency and lack of transparency have allowed us to panic and trust misinformation.  Small businesses had to close, jobs were lost, and lives were disrupted. Everyone quickly grew tired of hearing about these unprecedented times and the new normal we were all living in. 

Though we are far from achieving herd immunity, this summer our country tasted a post-pandemic world: restaurants and bars fully populated, and, prior to the recent mandate, unmasked people everywhere I turned. Festivals like Lollapalooza and Rolling Loud drew in crowds of thousands of people. Social distancing seems to be a relic of the past.

I question whether we have earned a right to normalcy. Even with our abundance of vaccines, only half of our population is fully vaccinated. In contrast, 1.84% of people in Vietnam, and 24.49% of the global population are fully vaccinated. During a recent Messenger call, my family in Vietnam expressed their concern with the vaccine rollout. They doubt they’ll be vaccinated by the end of the year, even though some of them are elderly. Right now, many things everywhere remain uncertain.

I would be remiss if I failed to mention the racism Asians in the diaspora have experienced in the last year. For many Asian Americans, the pandemic has presented anxieties twofold: the risk of contracting the virus and becoming a victim of a hate crime. In this country alone, more than 9,000 anti-Asian hate crimes have been reported since last March. I have sometimes felt that not a day would go by without learning that another person, usually an elder, was harassed or assaulted for their race. Though anti-Asian racism is not new, the pandemic has exacerbated the long-standing injustices that many of our communities experience.

In the midst of everything, the mask mandate returning and venues enforcing vaccines as an entry requirement, a hopeful light at the end of the tunnel shines still. As of August 3, the United States has donated 110 million vaccines to 65 countries. President Biden has promised more donations by the end of the month.

While my immediate and extended family in North Carolina have all been vaccinated, I worry still for my loved ones in Vietnam. I worry for the world and how we’ve continuously de-prioritized low-income countries, this pandemic being no different. I think of the wealth of resources in this country, and how states and companies have had to incentivize Americans to get the shot with cash prizes and free doughnuts. I think of how it’s still not enough. Most of all, I wonder what it will take for Americans to reckon with our privilege and take bold steps to protect the collective.

What are you doing to keep your community safe?

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You can support those deeply impacted by COVID-19 by donating or volunteering:

  • Saigon Children’s Charity (Vietnam): Send a “COVID backpack” containing food staples, hygiene necessities, books, and games, to a child in COVID-affected areas in Vietnam so that they know they are taken care of physically and mentally.

  • Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation (Vietnam): Donate to provide immediate assistance to children and families who are vulnerable to the Delta variant.

  • New York Cares (NYC): Meets pressing community needs by mobilizing caring New Yorkers in volunteer service.

  • California Volunteers (CA): A range of ways you can safely help California communities.

  • Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium (Philadelphia): Education and Advocacy for African Americans to reduce the incidence of disease and death from coronavirus. African Americans are being diagnosed at a disproportionately higher rate than other groups and are dying from coronavirus at a higher rate than other groups.

  • Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation (Philadelphia): Working to protect, preserve, and promote Philadelphia Chinatown businesses and residents.

You can find local volunteer opportunities through volunteermatch.org, including assisting COVID-19 testing, vaccinations, and food distributions.

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