Photo Credit: Jason Leung/Unsplash Pandemic racism: the frontline war By: Matthew Chong A special emerge feature report

With a pandemic still affecting thousands of Canadians and calls for social change, the last two years have made it important to have conversations about diversity and inclusion. On the one hand, the origin of the COVID-19 virus and the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes and rhetoric have sent shockwaves of fear in the community with many often too scared to leave their own homes. On the other hand, many young Asian students were required to show up to work and take on extra shifts in order to put food on the dinner table, all while putting themselves at risk not only of the virus but also of being a possible target of racism and discrimination, all to keep Ontario’s economy moving.

After multiple conversations with fellow students from the University of Guelph-Humber in Toronto–known to be one of the most diverse student populations of any post-secondary school in Canada–it’s become clear that a large part of the student body is employed part-time in what is considered to be essential services. In the past year, it has also been clear that even as the campus has been shut down and students have had to learn remotely, students have been under increasing pressure to put themselves at risk in order to support themselves and their families. 

#stopasianhate sign (Jon Tyson/Unsplash)

Even though we were not able to find any statistics for the number of young Asian workers who are working on the frontline provincially or nationally, Emerge Magazine found three Asian students to tell their stories and experiences while working on the frontline during the pandemic. We have chosen to protect the identities of the students by using pseudonyms, either because they were not openly comfortable talking about their work experience with racism or fear they might lose their jobs. 

The first student that we have decided to identify as Josephine, 22, works at a home decorating store in Brampton, Ont. She said that she has worked as an associate at the home decorating store since June 2020 when “the pandemic was already brewing.”  

During her shifts, she usually helps customers on the phone, takes their orders and mixes paint. During the school year, she worked between 25 and 28 hours per week, but that quickly increased to nearly 40 hours per week in order to support herself and her family. 

As a first-generation Filipino, Josephine said that her parents didn’t have the same opportunities as other people when they were growing up. She said that she started working part-time at 17 years old and has held two other customer service jobs during her time in university. 

During the province-wide stay-at-home order in early 2021, she said that the store transitioned to curbside pickup. Josephine said that the attitudes of customers were rarely a problem at her old jobs, but during the pandemic, she has had to deal with customers “with such entitlement.” For example, some customers would either yell at her or use offensive language after being told to wear a mask or to wear it properly.  

“I still feel like contractors don’t take me seriously,” she said. “Regular customers know who the newbies are but I still feel customers look at me funny after asking if they need any help.”

One of the most devastating incidents that ultimately catapulted conversations about anti-Asian rhetoric into mainstream media occurred on March 16, 2021, when eight people were killed after a man open-fired on three Atlanta-area spas and massage parlours. Six of the victims were Asian women.

A child lays down a sign as people gather in the rain at the Ottawa Women's Monument in Minto Park for a vigil in memory of the victims of the Atlanta spa shootings and to rally against anti-Asian racism, in Ottawa, on Sunday, March 28, 2021. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

According to CNN, the shootings prompted increased security and police patrols in predominantly Asian communities across the United States. The suspect, Robert Aaron Long, 21, of Woodstock, Ga. reportedly told investigators that “he had a sex addiction and that he saw the spas as ‘a temptation … that he wanted to eliminate’,” according to CNN. 

Following the mass shooting in Atlanta, protests and demonstrations took place in major cities across Canada and the United States to denounce anti-Asian racism.  

Here at home, hate crimes towards the Asian community saw between a six to seven hundred per cent spike in 2020, a significant increase compared to the previous year, according to CTV News.

Anti-Asian hate crimes increased 717 per cent from 2019 to 2020, according to a report by the Vancouver Police Department.

The latest example was when an Asian woman and her friend from Coquitlam, B.C. were verbally harassed by a stranger. According to Global News, it all started when the stranger allegedly asked the pair to take a photo of her using her phone, but they declined citing the pandemic. That’s when the stranger went on a racist tirade and told the Asian woman and her friend to

go back to China

and said that COVID-19 came from their country, referring to China.

Toronto's Chinatown (Jesse Martini / Unsplash)

Toronto had the second-highest number of cases involving anti-Asian hate crimes in 2020, according to CTV News. The most recent incidents occurred on April 9 and April 11 at various subway stations. According to Global News, a man believed to be in his 20s or 30s targeted three Asian women at Christie, Lansdowne and Wellesley Stations. The suspect reportedly spat on them and yelled racial slurs.  

Two more University of Guelph-Humber students agreed to tell their stories and experiences of working a frontline job on the condition that we used pseudonyms in order to protect their identities. 

“Being half Asian and working during a pandemic has been tough,” said a student that we have decided to identify as Miranda. She works as a cashier at a major retail chain in the Simcoe County Region- just north of Vaughan, Ont. At the height of the pandemic, Miranda noticed that every day kept getting more unpleasant and uncomfortable.

“I started to notice the side glances and them [customers] staring at me trying to figure out what background I am,” she said. “I have even had someone come up and ask me what my background was, which made me nervous because it was out of nowhere and rude.”

As the pandemic got worse in the past year, Miranda said that the actions that some customers took made her feel

"awful and dirty"

including times when people avoided her lines or asked her not to touch their things.

"It’s honestly hurtful to be treated differently because of your background"

“I don’t know how anyone can think that it’s okay to act that way to someone especially to someone who is serving them and trying to make a living during a pandemic.”

Students who work at the frontlines of health care have also been through a lot the past year and have had to experience unacceptable behaviour from some patients. Fourth-year student Janet, 21, has a part-time job screening patients at a vaccination clinic at Michael Garron Hospital in East York, Ont. 

People attend a rally opposing discrimination against Asian communities and to mourn the victims and all those affected by the Atlanta shootings, in Toronto on Sunday, March 28, 2021. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

She said that she is usually the first person the public will see before entering the vaccination clinic. As a screener, she asks patients various questions including if they have any symptoms of COVID-19, if they have been in contact with anyone who has tested positive for COVID-19 in the last 14 days, if they have tested positive themselves for COVID-19, if they had an allergic reaction when they got their first dose and answering any questions patients may have about their vaccine.  

Although Janet is a part-time student worker, her frontline job also means that she is the person responsible for dealing with a lot of complaints. 

“Patients will go to great lengths just to call us out for not letting them enter the hospital, get a COVID test or even receive a vaccine,” she said. Just like Josephine’s experiences of working in customer service during the pandemic, Janet said that “there will always be patients who will comply with protocols and others who will feel more entitled.” 

Janet said that her job has made her grow a thick skin–but acknowledges that patient behaviour is a source of pain to young frontline workers. 

“It hurts sometimes because people do not realize how much of a toll it takes on my mental health.”

“From being called different names to saying I’m not doing my job correctly because I need to follow strict guidelines, it really leaves an impression on me,” she said. “I think tensions are so high, to the point where people will go out of their way to release their anger out on someone.” 

“I am not even surprised anymore by these responses because there is no way to escape hate,” she said.