Asian American Doctor On Experiencing Racism During The Coronavirus Pandemic, Feeling ‘Powerless’ In Helping Patients

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Dr. Chen Fu, a hospitalist at NYU Langone Medical Center, wrote about his experience with racism in the TIME. (Courtesy)
Dr. Chen Fu, a hospitalist at NYU Langone Medical Center, wrote about his experience with racism in the TIME. (Courtesy)

Discrimination against Asian Americans has surged in the United States. Since mid-March, the Asian Pacific Policy & Planning Council says they’ve received more than 1,100 reports of coronavirus discrimination.

While President Trump and allies have called the coronavirus the “Chinese virus” or “Wuhan virus,” reports have recently surfaced regarding a key Republican strategy come November: Point the finger at China for the health care emergency unfolding in the U.S.

Asian Americans have documented experiencing threats and harassment both verbally and physically — leaving many terrified. Dr. Chen Fu, a hospitalist at New York University Langone Medical Center, says on top of battling an unprecedented health care crisis, he’s been a victim of xenophobia himself, as he wrote in TIME.

“I was walking through the subway a couple weeks ago and a gentleman came up to me and just started yelling racial slurs,” Fu says, “most of them directed toward my Chinese ethnicity.”

He’s heard stories from friends and family who have experienced racism since the pandemic ravaged the U.S. His mother’s car, decorated with Chinese knick-knacks hanging from the rearview mirror, was broken into — yet nothing was taken. He says when she relayed the crime to her friends, they all expressed similar experiences.

“One of her friends had her car completely keyed all over,” he says.

He says a puzzling dichotomy has unfolded: On one hand, he’s celebrated for being a doctor, and on the other, taunted for his identity.

Although Fu tries to avoid letting the harassment seep into his work life, he says the thought of anti-Asian hate acts remains planted in the back of his mind.

What grounds him, even after experiencing a verbal attack, is the “overall goodness” he’s witnessed from people far and wide during the pandemic, he says.

“The overall kindness and humility and grace that I see overwhelms that sensation of any fear that I might have,” he says.

At NYU Langone Medical Center, Fu says things “are a little bit better.” COVID-19 wards have died down, he says, and some coronavirus-designated areas are being converted back to their original purpose.

He says the hospital has a supply of personal protective equipment (PPE), in large part because of a community effort to get the protective gear to nurses and doctors as soon as possible.

Although sick patients are still coming in, Fu says the mood has pivoted to a hopeful one, where health care workers are finally spotting “a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Yet the sense of “powerlessness” over the virus has taken its toll. Not knowing if he can assure infected patients they’ll be OK has been unsettling to him, he says.

He recalls the moment when he first met a pregnant patient he was assigned to care for. She was “clearly terrified,” he says, as she sat clutching her belly. When she asked if she’d get through this, he says he didn’t know how to respond.

“In normal times before coronavirus, I felt that knowledge was a big comfort when it was brought to patients,” he says. “But in these times, it just accentuates this feeling of powerlessness.”

Ingrained into his memory are his COVID-19 patient’s final conversations with loved ones over the phone. Oftentimes, these patients can’t say much — they are struggling to even breathe, he says — so loved ones look back on happy memories together and repeat “I love you” over and over during their last moments.

In a nod to Mr. Rogers, Fu says he’s been looking to helpers in the community for strength when dealing with both sick patients as well as confronting the ever-present xenophobia.

“From the restaurant workers who, even though their businesses are hurting, provide free food and coffee to us daily, to the many physicians and nurses — people like that really give me strength,” he says.

Marcelle Hutchins produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Peter O'Dowd. Serena McMahon adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on April 20, 2020.


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