We Are Not A Virus: On COVID-19, Anti-Asian Racism, and Mental Health

"I am a new kind of exhausted I have never experienced before." Graduate student Alex shares her experiences as an Asian mental health advocate.

Hi. I’m Alex, YouAlberta writer and University of Alberta student.

I’m Filipino-Canadian, born and raised in Edmonton. My major is East Asian Studies, and I volunteer as Social Media Manager for Asian Mental Health Collective. And I am a new kind of exhausted I have never experienced before.

You may have heard about how six Asian women were killed in shootings at several massage parlors in Atlanta by a white man. Perhaps you’ve seen several infographics about Anti-Asian racism since then. You might be shocked and surprised by this violent loss of life, but this fear has been a reality for myself and other Asian people for a long time.

Maclean’s reports that in early February 2020, the Chinese Canadian National Council began recording incidents of anti-Asian racism because of the perception that people who look Chinese or Asian are possible carriers of COVID-19. By the end of June 2020, there were more than 300 cases reported.

As the article notes, most of what we experience in Canada is subtle: microaggressions, discrimination in professional settings, and the normalization of problematic stereotypes. Every time it happens to me, I try not to react or walk away to protect myself from the situation. I try to prove my worth by pushing myself to excel. To show no cracks. To show that I am better than what this society may think of me. But when COVID-19 started to affect Albertans, I saw several social media posts from my friends about verbal attacks they experienced while getting groceries or just going for a walk. It seemed clear to me that COVID-19 wasn’t the cause of Anti-Asian racism in Edmonton or in Canada, it just seemed to make it okay to speak or act on it.

Though it may seem like just words, these experiences are traumatic. Research has shown that “experiencing racial discrimination is strongly correlated with psychological and physical health outcomes, including increased pain, disability and higher all-cause mortality.” It can also lead to barriers for Asian people accessing health services, and research shows that Asian Americans are already amongst the lowest utilizers of mental health services. Given my experiences, I wouldn’t be surprised if that was the case for Asians in Canada too.

That’s part of why I started volunteering for Asian Mental Health Collective (AMHC) in July 2020. I’ve been a mental health advocate since 2012, and through this journey I realized I wanted to bring my passion to a global stage. One day I would like to open up conversations on mental health with people back home in the Philippines, or as a scholar of East Asian Studies. I was drawn to AMHC and their vision to make mental health easily available, approachable, and accessible to Asian communities worldwide.

The experience has been absolutely wonderful for me. Not only do I have a great community of Asian mental health advocates around me, I get to share the very cool work that the Asian Mental Health Collective team does (like the launch of our Asian Canadian Therapist Directory or our WAVES Virtual Roundtables).

Earlier this year, we hosted our first conference. The conference featured Asian scholars, artists, community organizers, mental health professionals, and key figures in the community. The event saw 2500 registrations, 12,000 unique viewers, and a peak of 650 active listeners tuned in across the 8 hour stream. We raised more than $7500 — three times more than our fundraising goal. As a group of volunteers, we were absolutely thrilled. It felt like a victory.

We found out a few days later that, on the same day as our conference, 84-year-old Vicha Ratanapakdee died in San Francisco after being pushed to the ground. As outrage in the Asian American community grew with the release of a video of the attack, reports of violent crimes against Asian people began to gain traction on social media. A video of Angelo Quinto — who passed away after being brutally restrained by police attempting a “mental health intervention” — broke my heart in ways I still cannot explain.

The shock value of the videos increased both awareness and anxiety in the community. AMHC was being tagged in Instagram infographics reposted by accounts like Seventeen magazine and Karamo of Queer Eye. Out of nowhere we went from 8,000 followers on Instagram to over 13,000. [Editor’s note: At the time of publication, the account has more than 21,000 followers]. Initiatives and projects to donate to AMHC from small one-person businesses and large corporations alike began to pop up.

But we were still recovering from the stress of the conference, plus processing our own shock and grief from the highly-publicized attacks. Many of us didn’t have the capacity to respond to the storm of DMs in our inbox asking for someone to come and speak on this podcast, or guest-write on that blog, or host this online workshop. There was a storm of people reaching out to us for the sake of creating content for their platforms, often with no offer of compensation for practical and emotional labour.

It reminded me of a tweet I saw about the exploitative rush to work with Black creatives after the death of George Floyd and the protests that followed. “It has become almost standard for companies to jump in, because everyone expects them to have some kind of social presence explaining how they align on race,” Sonya Grier, a marketing professor at American University, says.

Where was the eagerness to share our stories before this culture of “helpful infographics” on Instagram? Where was the willingness to care about Asian lives and Asian stories before seeing videos of our elders being attacked in the streets? Where was the outrage surrounding racism and fetishization of Asian women before they were shot in their workplaces?

Karthick Ramakrishnan, founder and director of demographic data and policy research nonprofit AAPI (Asian American Pacific Islander) Data, speculates that what Asian Americans were going through a year ago was just as bad or worse as what’s happening now, but they failed to receive the kind of media attention they’re getting right now. While I am glad these issues are finally getting attention, it does feel bittersweet. Lives have been lost and people have been harmed, and we can’t help but wonder what would have happened if this movement to stop Asian hate had happened when the spike in hate crimes first appeared.

The support I have received from my own friends, and the support AMHC has received, gives me hope. That’s why I continue this work: I hope that organizations like mine can keep the momentum moving, keep having open conversations, and provide culturally-appropriate resources. That in doing so, Asian communities in Canada and worldwide won’t have to experience this kind of trauma anymore. But we definitely can’t make this change on our own.

In the highlights of @asianmentalhealthcollective on Instagram, I’ve curated some content to help users find external resources, calls to action, and relevant readings on the intersection of race, culture, and mental health. I invite you to check it out if you want to continue your journey about learning about what Asian people go through, how it impacts our mental health, and what you can do to help.