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New Study Seeks To Learn How COVID-19 Has Affected LA’s Southeast Asians

An Asian woman using a rapid antigen self-test kit for  COVID-19.
L.A.-based researchers will study the impact of COVID-19 on Southeast Asian locals.
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Nearly three years into the pandemic, COVID-19’s impact on Asian Americans is far from clear. Data is limited. Data broken down by ethnicity? Even more so.

A team of researchers in Los Angeles is working to change that. They’re recruiting 1,000 Cambodians, Filipinos, Thais and Vietnamese in and around Los Angeles to take part in a year-long study on how the virus has affected their lives.

“What we're asking people to do is allow us to help share their story so that we can empower the community to not hide behind ‘Oh, don't worry about us, we're resilient,” said Cal State LA associate professor Melanie Sabado-Liwag, one of the researchers on the study.

Asian Americans, despite wide variations in health, educational attainment, and socioeconomic status, are typically lumped together by researchers, making it difficult to detect disparities among ethnic subgroups.

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Organizations representing Southeast Asians have voiced concern that COVID-19 has disproportionately affected that population’s health and finances.

One reason is that Southeast Asians are overrepresented in jobs that can’t be done remotely, said Patty Kwan, a health sciences associate professor at Cal State Northridge who is co-leading the survey.

Filipinos, for example, account for a disproportionate number of the country’s nurses, while Vietnamese dominate the nail salon industry, she said.

Numerous donut shops are owned by Cambodians, while many Thais are in the massage therapy industry, Kwan said.

“They’re the ones that basically cannot stay at home and isolate,” she said. “We've heard that same narrative with the Latino population and African Americans. What we're hoping is to provide the Southeast Asian American perspective.”

A goal of the survey is identifying gaps in health care received by Southeast Asians and how to close them through culturally appropriate programming.

Kwan said the survey could bolster anecdotal evidence that Southeast Asians make health care decisions such as vaccinations after consulting their families.

“So we might therefore use that data to develop an intervention that involves family members and decision-making around their health outcomes,” she said.

The National Institutes of Health has granted more than $1 million for the study, which will draw participants from Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, and Ventura counties.

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One-third of the funds will be used to compensate participants for taking four surveys over the course of 2023 — available in Khmer, Tagalog, Vietnamese, and Thai, on top of English.

Kwan said she hopes participants will also be motivated by the opportunity to give voice to the Southeast Asian community, whose stories are often overshadowed by those of east Asians.

“We want the Southeast Asians to be seen at a local and national level but also to be heard because they've been understudied and under-heard for a long time,” she said.

You can sign up for the study here.

Have a question about Southern California's Asian American communities?
Josie Huang reports on the intersection of being Asian and American and the impact of those growing communities in Southern California.