South Bay Vietnamese Americans wrestle with COVID-19, lack of information
Linh Nguyen, owner of Paloma Cafe in the Grand Century Mall in San Jose, stands inside his empty restaurant. Photo by Sonya Herrera.

On a clear December day, the glowing sun hit a scant array of faces walking toward the Grand Century Mall in San Jose.

In a plaza once teeming with visitors, particularly Vietnamese Americans, there were mostly shop owners and workers tending to business: distributing supplies, cleaning facilities and fulfilling to-go orders for loyal customers.

San Jose alone is home to more than 100,000 Vietnamese American residents as of 2010 and has the largest population of Vietnamese Americans of any city outside of Vietnam. Santa Clara County as a whole has roughly 140,000 residents of Vietnamese ancestry. Yet, little is known about how COVID-19 has affected the Vietnamese American community in Santa Clara County.

The county has not published specific information about the community. Its data portal, which provides information on coronavirus case and death rates for different racial groups, does not include a breakdown of different Asian American subgroups, a category that includes Chinese Americans, Indian Americans and Filipino Americans.

Following public pressure at the Board of Supervisors Dec. 8 meeting, county officials are expected to provide that breakdown to supervisors today.

Huy Tran, a board member at the San Jose-based community group Vietnamese American Roundtable, said the lack of disaggregated data focusing on specific Asian American subgroups makes it difficult for his community to understand the virus’ impact.

“We’re talking about a very diverse county,” Tran said. “The experience of Southeast Asian refugees is very different from the experience of very recent South Asian immigrants.”

Tran said misinformation on COVID-19 has thrived in Vietnamese-language media. He recalled a story featured on local TV news of an elderly Vietnamese couple in San Jose who survived the virus. The reporters asked what health precautions they took, and the couple said they simply gargled salt water — a practice that has been debunked as a protective measure against COVID-19.

“I have family in Omaha that heard about what happened in San Jose, and they think ‘Oh, it’s easy,’” Tran said. “This information spreads and it sticks.”

The local Vietnamese American community has some unique characteristics that may make it particularly susceptible to the virus. According to a county report from last year, “more Vietnamese American adults have been diagnosed with diabetes than all Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, and Caucasians in the county as a whole.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have identified both type I and type II diabetes as conditions that increase the risk of severe symptoms from coronavirus.

Linda Do, owner of the Blossom Nail Spa in San Jose, said Vietnamese women have been hit particularly hard by the county shutdown orderMany of them were employed in businesses that are heavily restricted by the order, such as nail and hair salons. On top of this, they now have to oversee their children’s education while grappling with an unfamiliar language and new technology.

“We have no financial help; no one’s helping us,” Do said. “They won’t allow us to go to work to provide for our families… I have 50 employees that I feel responsible for.”

Linh Nguyen, owner of Paloma Cafe, agrees that the change in protocol has been frustrating. Inside the popular restaurant is a cluster of unused space heaters and folding chairs laying in a darkened corner of the empty space.

Linh Nguyen stands besides his restaurant’s space heaters, which he is unable to use following the county’s latest health order. Photo by Sonya Herrera.

Hoang Truong, who was born and raised in San Jose, said he feels fortunate to have retained his full-time job, which allows him to work from home while supporting his wife and one-year-old baby. Many people in his community, once employed as cashiers or waiters in restaurants, have lost their jobs.

“There’s a lot of financial hardship,” Truong said. “Life is more expensive now.”

Truong said seniors have been hit particularly hard. Elderly people used to be able to go to community centers for social activities, but now those centers are closed.

“It’s really impacted their mental health,” Truong said. “They feel bored, they feel lonely, they can’t talk to anyone else.”

He said the Vietnamese American community appears to be evenly split between people who think businesses should reopen and those who think they should remain closed for now.

“For the young people, of course, they really want to open — they need to go to work, they need to provide for their families,” Truong said. “When I talk with seniors in a lot of my community, most of them say they still are scared of COVID-19.”

From left: High school students Nathan Le, Andrew Le and Jonathan Nguyen stand outside Grand Century Mall in San Jose. Nathan Le said he works a part-time job to help support his family while both his parents are unemployed. Photo by Sonya Herrera.

Dr. Daljeet Rai, a family physician at O’Connor Hospital in San Jose, said based on his observations and public data, Latinos have been the most affected by the virus. However, Vietnamese Americans and Filipino Americans appear to have been the hardest-hit among Asian Americans although hard data is not available.

“It seems like Vietnamese and Indian people are taking more precautions,” Rai said. “It’s been a struggle for us and health care providers. I’m sure it’s a bigger struggle for epidemiologists trying to get these data to us.”

Rai said members of ethnic groups, particularly Mexican Americans and Vietnamese Americans, have to reconcile the reality of the virus with the traditions in their respective cultures.

“Not a lot of Western people deal with extended families,” Rai said. “It’s really hard for family members to tell each other ‘Don’t come.’ You have to be hospitable.”

The physician added many people in these ethnic groups need to work essential jobs to provide for their families, which increases their exposure to the virus.

“They’re forced to go to work when other people are not forced to work,” Rai said. “They have to pay their bills, and a lot of times they don’t understand the system well enough to see what services are available.”

Nguyen of Paloma Cafe said the county’s health restrictions require him to run at 80% of his labor capacity, due to the restaurant’s drastically reduced income. Nguyen makes up for the missing labor by asking his wife and two adult daughters to help him when they can. However, Nguyen said he supports the county health order.

“I myself put my health above everything,” Nguyen said. “It was the right decision to shut down.”

Contact Sonya Herrera at [email protected] or follow @SMHsoftware on Twitter.

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