As the nation shut down in response to the coronavirus, members of Philadelphia’s Asian American community were troubled not just by the deadly virus, which originated in China, but also by reports of Asian Americans being harassed and scapegoated for the pandemic.
So they began looking to combat the misperceptions and bigotry — and help the larger community. By early April, the Korean American Association of Greater Philadelphia had come up with a way: making masks for nursing homes, retirement communities, and hospitals.
“That’s what motivated us to get started, I must admit. We said, ‘Hey, we have to do something here.’ We are willing to help. We are part of the community. We may look Asian, but we are all American here,” said Jhan Kim, a chiropractor from Huntingdon Valley and member of the association.
For the Make a Mask Campaign, the association joined forces with the Korean American Dry Cleaners Association, the Korean American Senior Citizens of Greater Philadelphia, Korean Traditional Music of Philadelphia, and the Montgomery County Korean Senior Association.
About 70 people from the organizations, many owners of dry cleaners closed by the virus shutdown, have been making masks by hand in their homes and stores, using fabric they bought or been saving for years, or which has been donated. They’ve also been collecting donated N95 surgical masks.
Other campaign members pick up the masks weekly and deliver them. The recipients have included Roxborough Memorial Hospital, Einstein Medical Center Elkins Park, Moss Rehabilitation Center in Elkins Park, York Nursing & Rehab Center, Gwynedd Healthcare & Rehabilitation Center, and several senior citizen apartment communities, said Hartz, who is the Korean community director at an area home care and hospice facility.
To date, nearly 5,000 masks have been delivered, and a donation of up to 10,000 is being planned for next week, said Sharon Hartz, the association’s president.
“There are so many handy people in the Korean community who are able to produce this,” she said.
The Main Line Chinese Cultural Center is also supplying masks and other personal protection equipment to the medical community. The center’s Qunbin Xiong said the group had distributed more than 30,000 pieces of personal protective equipment to Penn Medicine in recent weeks. On Wednesday, members donning face masks delivered donated supplies to a Penn Medicine facility.
“Chinese Americans are especially motivated because we found ourselves fighting two pandemics at the same time. One is COVID-19, our common enemy, the other being racial profiling of Asian Americans. The racial injustice is becoming increasingly toxic,” the center said on its Facebook page.
U.S. Rep. Judy Chu (D., Calif.) told MSNBC in late March that about 100 hate crimes against Asian Americans had been reported daily since the outbreak began.
She and the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus have denounced as racist President Donald Trump’s insistence on calling the coronavirus the “Chinese” virus and the “Wuhan” virus, a reference to where it was first reported.
Kim said the Make a Mask Campaign has brought out the best in the city’s Korean American community and has given people who speak little to no English a way to connect to the larger community in a time of need.
“This is something that got started because of the horrible coronavirus situation, but it is giving people hope in the sense that we can do something to help the outside community," she said. “We’re not about to stop. We’re going to keep going until there is no more need for masks.”