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The Chinese in the prairie: Chinese Iowans’ reactions to the COVID-19 pandemic

By Shu Wan | OMC 2024

Iowa pasture by Macy Cronkite from Getty Images

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Chinese immigrants were motivated to become more active in participating in community services and advocated for their inclusion into Iowa’s society. These measures were taken under the leadership of the Iowa City-Area Chinese Association (ICACA), which was founded by Dr. Yaling Yi. Relocated to Iowa as a biochemist affiliated with the University of Iowa in the 2000s, she is dedicated to advocating Chinese immigrants’ frustrated attempts to be integrated into Iowa’s local society. In her view, “as folks settled in over the years, there was a growing realisation that we should not dwell in the mindset that we are mere visitors living in a foreign land”.

While the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic is still a puzzle, it is certain that it deteriorated into a public health crisis in China at the end of 2019. After learning about the severity of the disease through their friends and families in China, the Chinese Iowans immediately started preparation for this public health threat in early 2020. Its leadership actively organised fund-raising activities and donations to the hospital and to essential workers on the frontline in Iowa City. ICACA organised donation activities for essential workers and people in need. Because of their Chinese origin, this ethnic community's leadership prioritised the well-being of its members in Iowa. 

However, ICACA was also eager to assist other, non-Chinese local members of Iowa City. In 2020, the unexpected spread of COVID-19 across the world caused a nationwide shortage of facemasks and relevant medical devices in the United States. In Iowa, the healthcare workers on the front lines were unprotected when they had to use facemasks repeatedly. Similar to Yi, a large portion of Chinese immigrants in Iowa worked as scientists in hospitals and medical schools affiliated with the University of Iowa. According to Yi, they recognised the risk those healthcare workers, who were also colleagues, encountered in their everyday workflows. Moreover, owing to their background in medical science, the leadership of ICACA were aware of the equal importance of shields and goggles for protecting healthcare workers from the disease, so they purchased facemasks and relevant medical devices and donated them to the hospital. This measure shows their alignment with other members of the local society, especially those fighting against COVID-19 on the frontlines.

Moreover, the shortage of food supplies for their neighbours in need also drew the attention of ICACA’s members. While located in the centre of the breadbasket in North America, there were 10.9 percent food insecurity in 2017, 9.4 percent in 2019 and 12.8 percent last year [2020] due to pandemic” in Iowa. The public health crisis and economic recession deteriorated the situation. It was reported that food insecurity became more severe during the pandemic.

In the meantime, the Chinese Iowans who made a living by serving food also encountered difficulty in maintaining their livelihoods. The economic recession and the regulation of dining-in significantly affected the business of Chinese restaurants. Concerned with the hunger and hardship on both sides, ICACA started a programme called Food of Love “to give back to front line workers and non-profits”. In detail, the organisation purchased 100 meals from a local Chinese restaurant and donated them to people in need.

Furthermore, ICACA also resonates with the national resilience in the face of the rise of anti-Asian sentiments. During the pandemic, the rise of xenophobia and racism resulted in assaults against Asian American women in Atlanta and New York. These incidents of hate crime fostered Asian American organisations' collective action protesting against racial injustice. ICACA was no exception and joined the collective action by holding the hands of other Asian American societies in expressing their concerns about the widespread anti-Asian sentiments in the United States. Despite its minority identity, the Chinese Iowan community took active agency in supporting the coalition of Asian immigrants across the United States.

Shu Wan is currently matriculated as a doctoral student in history at the University at Buffalo. 


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