The Real Reason Why COVID-19 is Hurting the Filipino- American Community

By Skyler Gallarzan 

Working in any part the medical field is a occupation heavily pursued by Filipino-Americans everywhere. However, with the raging coronavirus pandemic swinging a striking blow on American citizens, anxiety and uncertainty has spread like wildfire within the medical community. While many medical staff fear for their lives, Filipino American workers live in this fear knowing that their heritage may heavily impact the effects of COVID-19. 

In its one year of existence, COVID-19 has claimed the lives of nearly 250,000 Americans. And as brutal as this virus is hitting every corner of the America, especially in communities of color, the Filipino American community is suffering immensely as the number of positive Coronavirus tests and Coronavirus affiliated deaths grow in their community. with as many as 4 million Filipinos residing in the USA, the Coronavirus has infiltrated the lives of Filipino Americans from 1st generation immigrant grandparents to 2nd and 3rd generation American-born Filipinos.  

We understand that black and brown communities are being hit the hardest by this virus, but why are so many Filipinos suffering? As of October 11th, the LA Times had compiled data that as much as 35% of California’s COVID deaths in the Asian community are Filipinos. And with one quarter of the Asian American population in California having roots from the Philippines, those numbers are beyond scary (LA Times). Since last month, it would be no surprise if that number has grown. So why do the numbers keep on growing in the Filipino American community? 

The answer: It’s in our culture. 

As strange as it may sound, Filipinos are under higher risk for a couple of very culturally specific factors: With a significant number of Filipino Americans involved in the medical and healthcare community, much of traditional Filipino diets and lifestyles contributing to pre-existing health conditions, and the huge emphasis of family care in Filipino culture, it is a deadly but very real combination that contributes to the growing mortality rates of Filipinos suffering from the coronavirus. 

While Filipinos only make up 4% of the total number of the American nursing population, 28% of immigrant nurses are Filipino. In locations along the West Coast, especially California, the density of these Filipino nurses is especially emphasized, where 20% of nurses identify as Filipino, says Mercury News. 39,000 health care workers have contracted COVID-19 in California, with numbers continuing to grow as the surge in numbers spikes.  

Gabi Martinez, a Filipino-American student residing in Palos Verdes, California, knows just how dangerous this virus can be, especially in places where you would hope are the safest, such as nursing homes. With her family owning a chain of nursing facilities, and many of her own family members a part of the healthcare community, she has witnessed the fear that the virus has brought into these vulnerable locations filled with elderly citizens, and felt the grief strike in her own household. 

“My dad was exposed to COVID-19 twice.” in administering residents and staff going in and out of his nursing home facilities, Martinez feared for her father’s safety. “Luckily, he didn’t get it”, says Martinez, “But I have aunts and uncles who work for our company who did get it. Three of my distant uncles have died. It’s just really difficult to comprehend how all of this is happening.”   

The virus does not target exclusively the sick and elderly. “One of my uncles was 33, and he got COVID-19 and he died,” says Martinez. “He was so young – it’s just so crazy that all this is happening, honestly.” 

While nearly 200 lives Californian health care workers have been claimed by the virus, Filipino Americans make up  12% of all health care workers, and 11% of health care support jobs, a significant target in being in positions of high risk within hospitals and nursing homes according to the Mercury News. 

Tess DeLeon, a surgical nurse from Las Vegas, was lucky enough to work with patients cleared from Coronavirus as an outpatient operating room staff nurse. While she may not be fighting face to face with COVID-19, she understands the “ins and outs” of medical procedure during the pandemic, such as wearing N95 masks during procedures, and taking extra precautions when working with a number of patients. 

DeLeon is thankful towards the nurses and medical staff working on the front lines of the Coronavirus floors in hospitals and knows the true risks that not only for themselves, but for their families faces. She is eternally grateful for her position as an outpatient surgical nurse. 

“[During quarantine] they were giving us what they called Pandemic Pay, because we weren’t working at the time. In return, they would assign us somewhere where we could be potentially exposed to COVID patients. I was almost assigned to one”, states DeLeon, “As much as I’d like to think I want to be a hero, I don’t want to do it at the expense of exposing my family to anything that I don’t necessarily want.” 

DeLeon has a point- In working in these environments, these medical heroes not only are at risk of contracting the virus, but households at home are at risk of exposure. In Filipino culture, putting family first is so deeply embedded in the roots of the Filipino community. With the concept of “respect” and “honor” being upheld so highly, traditionally, you will notice that many Filipino families live in multi-generational households.  

Why is that?  

As previously noted, the idea of respect and honor towards older family and elders ties into the way Filipinos view the lives of their parents and grandparents. Traditional gestures such as the “Mano Po” pays respects to our elders when we greet them with their hand blessed upon our foreheads, but the way that many Filipino American families pay gratitude to their ancestors, is by inviting them into our households. When a son or daughter brings in their parents to live with them once they grow old, it is seen as a way to “give back” to them after all they have done to raise them. 

In knowing how many Filipino caretakers work under her father’s business, Martinez knows firsthand how this vicious cycle of the spread of COVID-19 works in Filipino households. 

“[My dad] has patients and nurses, and from his experience, these employees are typically the ones who bring COVID into nursing homes. Most of them are Filipino. They get tested every week, but they go back to homes with their grandparents, their parents, their kids, their nieces, nephews, cousins, whoever they are living with.” 

Martinez not only recognizes the traditions of her heritage, but can see a pattern in comparing cultural differences. 

“I think it’s just known in Filipino culture that you are expected to take care of your parents or your grandparents when they’re older,” says Martinez. Her grandparents currently live independently, but her family all lives within 10 minutes of her grandparents’ home and checks in on them often. “I’m not trying to dish on American culture,” she chuckles, “But usually, I see that [American families] will put more people in nursing homes, than Filipinos typically would. And that’s just because family is such an important aspect.” 

While Martinez laughs on the subject, it is a true statistic. In 2014, the distribution of white nursing home residents in the United States stood at a staggering 77.9%, compared to Asian residents at 1.7%, according to Statista. So, when you look at the spread of the virus at a cultural angle, you are able to recognize exactly why the virus is spreading amongst Filipino families and Latino families: they both share similar ideals in the way that they view and partake in multi-generational housing. 

In “reflecting a cultural preference for family caregiving”, it in turn, reflects one of the reasons why so many Filipino family members are suffering from the Coronavirus. 

“I think it’s much more normalized [in the Filipino community],” says Martinez on the topic of her relationship with her grandparents. “Because in Filipino culture, you’re just so close. I don’t know why, but I’m especially close my grandpa. I don’t think maybe as many other people that are as close.” 

That same “closeness” is not the only aspect that reigns notable to Filipino culture, and to the spread of the virus; The traditional food of the Philippines remains a favorite comfort food enjoyed all around the world. From vinegar-y adobo to fatty sisig, and crispy lechon to fried bangus, many Filipino dishes are considered the most delicious of all delicacies. And while Filipino cuisine is mouthwatering, ultimately, it isn’t very good for you. The majority of traditional Filipino dishes consist of a base of rice, soy sauce, vinegar and oils, and often use all kinds of proteins coming from pork, beef, chicken, eggs, and more.  

These meals have been enjoyed for generations in the Philippines. 1st generation Filipino American immigrants grew up eating these foods. As a result of consuming a lifetime of meals high in fat, many Filipino Americans live with high rates of various pre-existing health conditions. Many Filipinos suffer from conditions such as heart disease, high blood pressure, asthma, and diabetes, just to name a few. In a recent study observing racial and ethnic differences of hypertension of outpatients of Northern California, over half of the Filipino population in the study carried traits of hypertension at 51.6%, also the highest among all racial and ethnic groups (This is also a result of the contribution of the “sedentary” behaviors that Filipinos carry, that highest amongst all Asian Americans, according to Alexander Adia, co-founder of and researcher with the Brown University Philippine Health Initiative for Research, Service, and Training with NBC News). And while these conditions do not actually cause the spread of the Coronavirus, it makes the Filipino American community much more vulnerable and susceptible to critical condition when we consider the other contributing factors. The combination of an inactive lifestyle and a fatty diet is a not just a recipe for leisure and a full belly, but brews risks and fatality amid this raging pandemic. 

For thousands of Filipino American lives across the country, the coronavirus had flipped their worlds upside-down. Jacob Jimenez knows just what it is like to come face to face with the Coronavirus, and considers himself very lucky to recover from COVID-19, knowing what it has done to his community. As a 22 year-old fully Filipino American student, Jimenez accounts for the growing number of infected Filipino Americans in Southern California. 

“My whole family is in the medical field, the ins and outs of it. From siblings, to aunts and uncles, to the third generation. I’ve heard so many stories of deaths”. While he does not know how exactly he became exposed to the virus, Jimenez knows firsthand that social distancing in the midst COVID-19 is not something to be taken lightly. 

“I have experienced COVID-19 myself and I could tell you, as a younger adult, that risking your health is not worth it. But, the thing is, even if you take precautions, you have to make sure everybody else around you is taking the right measures.” 

Jimenez resides in Los Angeles in a household of seven people. Before the pandemic, he lived with nine family members in total, until his parents helped relocate his grandmother and great aunt to a cousin’s home with less likelihood of exposure to them. 

“There was a lot of fighting”, Jimenez remembers. His diagnosis struck much anxiety and stress among his 6 other family members. “I really thought I had to go to the hospital. Fortunately, I am young. But honestly, I was really scared. Because I not only did I have to isolate myself from the public, but I had to isolate myself from everybody else, including my immediate family.” 

In quarantining in a room alone for a total of 14 days, Jimenez had much time to reflect on his priorities as the Coronavirus continues to spread.  

“It’s still not over. It’s really bad, and it’s really terrifying. I think that in hearing all the stories, and actually experiencing the repercussions of the virus for yourself, you realize that you don’t want it to happen to someone you care about, especially to a loved one. I don’t know how I would feel if this virus was exposed to Mamita, my lola (Tagalog word for grandmother).” 

In experiencing symptoms such as diarrhea, body ache, fatigue, insomnia, and loss of appetite, Jimenez ultimately only experienced a couple of the more “minor” symptoms of COVID-19.  

As states such as California begin to conduct another wave of strictly enforced lockdowns, the hopes for a vaccine, or simply for the slowing of the spread of the virus, keeps America in anticipation. And hopefully, allows for a time of healing for all communities.