The novel coronavirus pandemic has upended life throughout the Puget Sound region, but it hasn’t hit all of us with the same severity. When disaster strikes, communities who were already vulnerable are typically hit worst and hardest. Help from neighbors, including support from local businesses and organizations like the COVID-19 Response Fund, managed by Seattle Foundation, is already making a difference.

As stories of the new coronavirus’ emergence in China began to be reported, local Asian American businesses were impacted immediately — but not by the virus itself. Instead, racism and fear kept patrons away, resulting in an abrupt decline in sales throughout the community. According to Michael Byun, executive director of Asian Counseling and Referral Service, the Chinatown-International District in Seattle was especially hard hit, seeing a drop in sales that ranged from 20% to 70%.

“The decline in patrons to Asian businesses also parallels an increase overall across the country in terms of bias, harassment, discrimination and even violence against Asian Americans,” says Byun. “And the situation is further aggravated when we hear leaders and influencers using terms like the ‘Wuhan virus’ or the ‘Chinese pandemic.’ Part of our community is afraid to go out to take care of important activities such as grocery shopping or attending a medical appointment. What’s most concerning is an overall sense of fear among our Asian American community.”

Michael Byun
Michael Byun

Asian Counseling and Referral Service (ACRS) is a nonprofit organization that supports immigrant, refugee and native-born communities in King County and beyond with a wide range of behavioral health programs, human services and civic engagement activities. Once the new coronavirus pandemic arrived in the Puget Sound region, ACRS experienced a surge in requests for services, especially mental health support.

As we all struggle to cope with life under Washington’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order, Byun notes that the isolation and loneliness it creates are more acutely felt in already isolated immigrant and refugee populations — especially those with low levels of English proficiency or digital literacy.

ACRS reports larger volumes of requests for financial help as its community members seek unemployment assistance and help with basic needs like paying for rent, groceries, medical care and essential household items.

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“Among our Asian American and Pacific Islanders, we have a disproportionate number of those who rely on hourly wage work with lower pay or work in sectors that have been hit hard such as retail, hospitality or service,” says Byun. “We are deeply concerned about how COVID-19 is impacting them.”

But thanks to a recent $250,000 grant from the COVID-19 Response Fund, Byun says ACRS will be able to staff up and focus their immediate response in two critical areas: increasing the agency’s ability to deliver lifesaving care remotely and nearly doubling their capacity to provide food to community members.

In order to comply with the “stay-at-home” order, ACRS staff had to rapidly shift to delivering services remotely, meaning that mental health counseling, language classes, immigration assistance, unemployment claims and more are now handled via video conference or telephone whenever possible. To keep up with this new and unexpected demand, ACRS will use a portion of the grant money to purchase laptops, telehealth software and improved broadband connections.

“Our team has adapted quickly to the situation, realizing how important it is for our clients and the community that we serve,” says Byun. “They have taken each challenge with such grace and patience, including the need to adopt new technology to help us carry out our mission. This is new for our colleagues but it has also been a good experience.”

To handle the increased requests its food bank is seeing, ACRS is now able to ramp up from distributing 200 weekly prepared meals to 400 and is also increasing its weekly prepared grocery bags from 850 to 1,500. They have also quickly shifted from using an on-site pickup model to delivery in order to maintain social distancing. ACRS is partnering with Evergreen Treatment Services’ REACH program and the Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation and Development Authority to deliver meals and groceries to the elderly, low-income and homeless.

Asian Counseling and Referral Service is just one of 128 community-based organizations that has received emergency funding from the COVID-19 Response Fund. The fund is managed by Seattle Foundation and supported by dozens of business, philanthropic, and government partners from across the region and country.

Organizations that received funding were already supporting at-risk populations in our community, including workers without health insurance or access to sick days, people with limited English language proficiency, gig economy workers, health care workers, communities of color and many others. But now they find themselves working on the front lines of a public health crisis like no other.

In response to the novel coronavirus outbreak, Seattle Foundation moved swiftly to create the fund and awarded its first round of grants, totaling $10.2 million, on March 30. Since it was launched on March 9, the fund has already received more than $18.9 million from individuals, local businesses, government and philanthropic organizations.

“Nonprofits and community-based organizations are on the front lines protecting us, and they need urgent support,” says Jane Broom, senior director of Microsoft Philanthropies, one of the fund’s anchor donors. “Our region has a strong track record of pulling together in times of need. This is what we need right now: an unprecedented community response to an unprecedented community challenge.”

While this initial wave of grants is having a significant impact on the most vulnerable populations in our community, the need for help will continue to be immense. Other COVID-19 fundraising efforts like All in Seattle seek to address this need by tailoring individual donations to education, food security, child care, and other critical services. And as the COVID-19 pandemic evolves, new areas of need will surely come to light.

“This is a very dynamic situation with many emerging needs,” says Tony Mestres, president and CEO of Seattle Foundation. “We encourage everyone to contribute to the COVID-19 Response Fund if they can and give to any other nonprofits they support. These are trying times for our community and we need to help each other now more than ever.”

And, Mestres notes, donations are just one way to show support for your community.

“Financial contributions aside, people can also volunteer in safe ways, such as writing seniors or tutoring kids online, looking out for their neighbors, checking in on their friends and loved ones, and staying as connected as possible despite our physical distance. We can give each other hope.”

At Microsoft Philanthropies, we believe in a future where every person has the skills, knowledge and opportunity to achieve more.