Meet the Researchers Boosting Asian American Representation in COVID Studies

The AAPI COVID-19 Project

Verywell Health

Key Takeaways

  • The AAPI COVID-19 Project seeks to examine how the COVID-19 pandemic shaped the lives of Asians, Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders in the U.S.
  • The project focuses on six areas including labor and the economy, community organizing and advocacy, and health.
  • Currently, there is limited data on how COVID-19 impacted the Asian community in the U.S.

COVID-19 research still struggles to illuminate how the pandemic has impacted Asians, Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders (A/AA & NHPI). The AAPI COVID-19 Project founders recognized this need for more research focused on the Asian diaspora, and sought to make a change.

The research project, housed under Harvard University’s Department of Sociology, scrutinizes the ongoing COVID-19 crisis and how it shapes the lives of A/AA & NHPI.

“Our research examines the ‘twin pandemics’ at play," Amy Zhang, communications manager for the AAPI COVID-19 Project and PhD candidate at the University of Texas at Austin, tells Verywell. "Not only the effects of COVID-19 itself on health and people’s financial situations but also the rise in xenophobia and anti-Asian racism that has been documented as well."

As the project manager for the study, christina ong, a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Pittsburgh, is responsible for co-leading the qualitative committee. She tells Verywell that this committee operates the interview portion of the study and conducts outreach to the community. “I work with my team to understand what that interview data means—what do stories shared by our interview participants tell us about broader trends in how A/AA & NHPI individuals are living their lives during COVID-19,” ong says. 

The project looks at:

  • Labor and the economy
  • Community organizing and advocacy
  • Health
  • Education
  • Family and caregiving
  • Online spaces

Preliminary Research Findings

Based on 40 preliminary interviews, Zhang says the study already revealed two major themes. The first was "risk assessment, where workers, regardless of their industry, have been forced to make decisions, putting personal safety against the safety of others."

For example, Asian American healthcare providers often find themselves "stuck between providing care to patients while protecting their own safety, with some physically separating themselves from family as a measure of protection," ong and Zhang write in a preliminary report. For the 40 interviewees, anti-Asian racism intensified feelings of social isolation.

They also found that COVID-19 economic policies and legal initiatives have unevenly affected Asian and Asian American workers. Some of these policies include the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economy Security Act (CARES Act) or hate crime legislation.

"While these policies aim to protect A/AA workers and communities, we consider that the CARES Act will be insufficient for supporting A/AA workers in informal and precarious labor sectors, and that criminal justice legislation will potentially harm A/AA workers in informal labor sectors in general, particularly for A/AA who are undocumented or migrant workers," they write.

Representation in COVID-19 Data 

Organizations such as Stop AAPI Hate, Virulent Hate, and Hollaback have documented the rise in anti-Asian violence since the pandemic’s onset. But even with these initiatives, the data on the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the A/AA & NHPI community is limited. From 1992 to 2018, clinical research projects funded by the National Institute of Health (NIH) focused on Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander populations comprised only 0.17% of the total NIH budget.

“I think we are finally getting to a place where there are more research studies on the Asian American community," ong says. "But, I do think we have a ways to go. There is not as widespread publicly available data on other aspects of how the pandemic is impacting our communities.”  

ong also stresses the need for more data examining how different ethnic groups weathered the pandemic. “A lot of existing research and also the ways that the federal government categorizes Asian and Asian American communities alongside Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities complicates the actual experiences of people from those communities,” ong says. 

For example, Marshallese Islanders in the continental United States have disproportionately died from COVID-19. And while it may seem like COVID-19 is the culprit, “when we interrogate the data, we can see that it is only exacerbating existing social problems, and bringing to light issues that have been there for a long time,” ong explains. “The ways that the data is or is not being talked about could potentially impact public policy and result in structural changes [and help] remedy these disproportionate health impacts has yet to be seen.”

Zhang adds that while some data exists, many research studies fail to include Asians at all. “It’s been disheartening to read study after study using data that doesn’t include Asians, either by intentional omission or due to insufficient sample sizes,” Zhang says. 

The AAPI COVID Project hopes to change that by focusing on the lived experiences of the A/AA & NHPI community. 

“As more people talk about these topics and indicate that they care, I hope that academics, grant funders, and others who are positioned in a place of power to initiate or fund research about these topics will respond,” Zhang says. 

What This Means For You

If you want to learn more about the impacts of COVID-19 on the AAPI community, the AAPI COVID-19 Project initial report details resources, organizations, and additional reading you can engage with.

What's Next For the Project?

The team completed its first round of preliminary interviews in October 2020 and is analyzing the preliminary data. Currently, the project contains two active studies focusing on labor, the economy, family, and caregiving.

“We’re now at a point where we are expanding the study and recruiting for more interview participants to encompass a wider spectrum of experiences, including wage-based workers and people from South Asian, Pacific Islander, and Native Hawaiian communities,” ong explains. 

In the coming months, ong and Zhang hope to complete a second round of interviews.

“We want to continue exploring the intricacies and nuances of how these communities are navigating the hardships from the pandemic,” ong says.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. The AAPI COVID-19 Project. Research Overview.

  2. Ong C, Zhang A. Research Report & Resources for Disentangling Anti-Asian Violence. The AAPI COVID-19 Project.

  3. Ðoàn LN, Takata Y, Sakuma KK, Irvin VL. Trends in Clinical Research Including Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Participants Funded by the US National Institutes of Health, 1992 to 2018. JAMA Netw Open. 2(7):e197432. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2019.7432

  4. Office of Insular Affairs. The Impact of COVID-19 on Pacific Islander Communities and OIA’s Support Through CARES Act Funds.

By Kayla Hui, MPH
Kayla Hui, MPH is the health and wellness ecommerce writer at Verywell Health.She earned her master's degree in public health from the Boston University School of Public Health and BA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.