Disproportionate burden: the USF Filipino community experience during COVID-19

Miguel Arcayena

Staff Writer

Although there are signs of optimism with COVID vaccinations well underway, the country continues to struggle with the pandemic’s devastating toll. Among the minority groups disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus in the United States is the Filipino American community. According to the University’s Center for Institutional Planning and Effectiveness (CIPE), 9% of all USF students self-identify as Filipino, including nearly a third of all nursing majors. 

“Everyone is affected by the pandemic, but for Filipinos, it feels more intimate and closer to home,” James Zarsadiaz said, director of USF’s Yuchengco Philippine Studies Program (YPSP). “For a lot of us, if your parents aren’t in the medical field, it’s an aunt or uncle, or a sibling. Also, a lot of Filipino families are in multi-generational households, so not only are they risking their lives in frontline work, but also the lives of their family members.” 

Zarsadiaz’s explanation for why the Filipino community has been disproportionately affected is supported by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which lists occupation and housing as “social inequities” adversely affecting racial and ethnic minorities during the pandemic. 

According to the Los Angeles Times, at the onset of the pandemic in California, Filipino Americans were dying at a faster rate than any other Asian American subgroup, though they only represent a quarter of the state’s Asian population.

A report published in September by National Nurses United, the largest union of registered nurses in the country, found that although Filipino Americans only make up 4% of the country’s registered nurses, they account for 31.5% of all COVID-19 related deaths in the field. 

Jizelle Mariano, a junior nursing student at USF from Southern California, comes from a family of nurses. When she returned home for winter break, Mariano described the constant anxiety in their family, particularly with her father’s work. “Every day after working with COVID patients he’d come home really exhausted and anxious about bringing the virus back home to us,” she said. 

As a result, the Mariano household has set new norms. “We leave a set of new clothes in the garage, and once my dad comes home he changes in the garage so that the dirty scrubs wouldn’t contaminate anything in the house,” Mariano said.

Living situations have rapidly changed in many Filipino homes, such as that of senior psychology major Ariel Guevarra and her family. Her mother is a nurse at Kaiser Permanente, while her father is a chef at one of their family restaurants in South San Francisco. In addition to her two younger siblings, Guevarra’s grandmother also lives with them. 

“We’re a pretty close family, but now we can’t really show any affection since my mom is on rotation and is asked to help in the COVID facility,” Guevarra said. “When she comes home, she goes straight upstairs, no greeting or anything.”

The Guevarra family’s primary source of income is its two restaurants in Daly City and South San Francisco called Fil-Am Cuisine. While the restaurants remain open for takeout only, they have faced financial difficulties and bigotry towards their Asian American ownership. “It’s been hard, especially in the beginning of quarantine because there were some who just wouldn’t get Asian food because of xenophobia,” Guevarra said.  

Additionally, since staff numbers at the restaurants have been reduced due to the pandemic, Guevarra and her siblings have had to step up to fill vacancies, particularly with food preparation and grocery purchases. “Obviously, we’ve had fewer customers, so sometimes we’re wondering how to financially sustain, especially with three college students,” Guevarra said. Her younger brother, Rodolph, is a junior at USF. He said that regardless of their economic woes, “our goal is to always make our customers happy and remind them that we’re still open.”

Filipino family businesses have been forced to adapt in unique ways in order to stay afloat. For junior art major Madeline Morales, her summer break was spent helping prepare her family’s dental office in Daly City for reopening. “It was a really crazy experience because we weren’t used to working in that type of circumstance. Just setting up Plexiglass everywhere, installing a washing machine for [personal protective equipment], and there were so many protocols I had to learn,” Morales said. 

Morales was compelled to help out with the family business when their receptionists quit due to employment uncertainty. Though there were hesitations from some patients due to the risk of COVID-19 exposure, Morales said that loyal patients have returned. “I think it’s because we’re one of the pure Filipino dental offices, and all of our patients are Filipino and they’re also friends with my parents, so there’s that type of trust that exists,” she added.

While the business has maintained its financial footing and health protocols, Morales did say it has not all been smooth sailing. The office temporarily closed after a patient tested positive for the coronavirus a week after their visit. Fortunately, “it hasn’t happened since then, but that experience was really scary,” Morales said. 

The struggle of living in the pandemic has also extended to Filipino international students like junior economics major Nathan Te. As news of the pandemic emerged last spring, Te’s parents told him to come back home to Manila. Because of the 16-hour time difference between San Francisco and Manila, he decided to take a semester off last fall. 

Though he returned to San Francisco two months ago, it was not an easy choice. “Coming to the decision was the hard part because my parents were pretty worried. But once they decided to let me go [to San Francisco], it was pretty straightforward. I feel like [USF] really helped to gather whatever documents I needed. I think what’s hardest, especially being out here alone, is that the usual support group is missing,” Te said. 

While in Manila last September, Te, along with another Filipino international student, junior psychology major Erica Divinagracia, organized a fundraiser with Kasamahan, the Filipino American student cultural organization at USF. Through Te and Divinagracia’s partnership with The Frontliners’ Kitchen, a Manila-based organization whose primary goal is to provide meals to frontline workers in the Philippines, the fundraiser raised more than $4,000. 

Without its usual events, similar fundraisers, and educational workshops and discussions alongside YPSP, Kasamahan has focused its programs on tackling relevant issues such as the pandemic’s impact on the Filipino community. Still, executive director and junior nursing major Frances Capupus said that this year presented new challenges. “We were really nervous about how we were going to hold events. I don’t think we had trouble recruiting members, but retaining members was definitely a struggle this semester.” 

As one of the largest student organizations on campus, Kasamahan normally holds social events for its members such as the Kuya Ate Kapatid mentorship program (KATE), Friendship Games (FG), and its annual Filipino Cultural Night (PCN), Barrio Fiesta. “The toughest challenge right now is developing a community in a virtual setting,” Capupus said. “Another challenge is retaining and maintaining motivation because we’re also students. But we’ll just have to adapt.”  

Presently, Zoom sessions and social media platforms have replaced large gatherings as alternative modes of socialization. Inspired by former members, Capupus said they want to protect and continue the organization’s legacy. “Kasamahan is a home. We need to make sure the people who come after us will still be able to find the meaning of what it means to be a Kasama,” she said. 

The struggles of leading an organization aren’t the only challenges Capupus is facing. 

As a nursing student, Capupus said that her major causes her a lot of anxiety because she wants to make sure she’s getting the most out of her education despite the pandemic’s effects. Capupus is not currently assigned to a clinical site, which she finds concerning “because a lot of nursing students get their knowledge from clinical practice.” 

News headlines have made the rounds about the pandemic’s outsized toll on the Filipino American community. Zarsadiaz contends that it’s imperative that these stories are told. “It’s important we recognize that Filipinos are disproportionately affected by COVID because it goes to show that they are doing a lot of the frontline work, which is often invisible or made to be invisible,” Zarsadiaz said. “If we don’t continue to put a spotlight on this issue, the Filipino community isn’t going to be able to address this problem as we move forward.” 

Editor’s Note: Miguel Arcayena is a member of Kasamahan, but recused himself from interviewing any Kasamahan members directly. Ethan Tan contributed the Kasamahan-related reporting to this story.

Miguel Arcayena is a junior politics major, Deputy News Editor, and a General Assignment Reporter at the Foghorn. He covers COVID-19-related campus issues. He can be reached at marcayena@sffoghorn.com.

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