Around the time of last year’s nationwide lockdown, a coalition of local Korean community groups came together to address gaps in the national Covid-19 response. Their born-digital objects and stories are being recorded by Te Papa, in collaboration with Turnbull Library, as part of Te Papa’s Making Histories project. Here, Curator Asian New Zealand Histories Dr Grace Gassin highlights their work.
Over the course of the last year and a half of the Covid-19 pandemic, many of us have faced uncertainty and upheaval in our lives. These challenges have been compounded for those who are new migrants, have family overseas, are on temporary visas, face health challenges, or for whom English is not their first language. The systemic inequities and inequalities embedded in our health system, public service, and other areas of society place these members of our community at greater risk of falling through the cracks of the national Covid-19 response. Racialised ethnic communities, including East Asian, South Asian, and Pasifika peoples, have also been the target of attacks as racialised narratives around Covid-19 have circulated at different times during the pandemic.
Among the approximately 40,000 people of Korean heritage living in Aotearoa New Zealand, there are many who fall into these categories. A highly diverse population, Koreans in Aotearoa include multiple generations of New Zealand citizens and residents, new and well-established migrants, workers and international students who live and work across all parts of our society. There are, among them, many young, established, able-bodied individuals who are fluent in English and Korean.
There are also, however, many who are not – and while Koreans collectively comprise one of New Zealand’s largest Asian ethnic populations, their experiences and challenges are often rendered invisible or marginalised within our society. Over the years, many local groups have established themselves to help Koreans connect with each other and find support lacking elsewhere – and during the unfolding Covid-19 crisis, these organisations have found their skills and commitment to Korean communities much needed.
Korean Coalition groups joins forces to beat the pandemic
As the pandemic took hold in early 2020, a number of local Korean groups came together in a coalition to support their communities. Some were already actively providing Covid-related support, while others joined the coalition in order to better understand how their skills could be most effectively put to use.
Co-ordinated remotely via the popular social media platform KakaoTalk, the Korean Coalition enabled the otherwise separate groups to better communicate with each other, identify areas of need, and recruit each other’s assistance. The combined group, which is currently active, consists of around 50 people from regional Korean societies and other community groups, vocational organisations (health), community media and social media platforms, students associations, experts (legal, travel), and the Korean Consulate.
In the early phase of the national Covid-19 response in 2020, Coalition members noted a lack in provision of timely, accurate Korean-language material about public health measures and the rapidly changing situation. Members of Coalition partner Auckland Korean Students Association (AKSA, University of Auckland) jumped into action and created daily, accurate translations of the government’s 1pm and 4pm briefings.
Their work quickly became recognised as a reliable source of information and was published regularly by multiple local Korean-language traditional and social media platforms. Translations of Covid-19 posters and health information were also created by the Korean Medical Students Association, some of which were reviewed by the Ministry of Health and used as part of the official ‘Unite Against Covid-19’ campaign in 2020.
In addition, the Coalition organised a webinar featuring a panel of legal, travel, and health experts to whom participants could direct their questions about a range of issues related to the pandemic. Other members of the Coalition, meanwhile, put together a Korean-language resource list of various support services and trusted informative websites and volunteered as grocery shoppers for vulnerable members of their communities.
The activities of the Coalition involved many hours of work by numerous individuals involved in everything from fact-checking translations to creating food parcels, driven by a sense of responsibility to both Koreans living in Aotearoa and the wider New Zealand community.
Reflections on the Coalition’s role in Aotearoa’s Covid-19 response
Many Coalition members have been quick to voice their pride in the work of the group and to highlight the relative success, in global terms, of both New Zealand and Korea’s Covid-19 responses. Eunsol Choi, who was President of the Auckland Korean Students Association during the lockdown period, noted that the Coalition provided a source of solidarity and support not only to others in the wider community, but also to its members.
“For me it was a very emotional moment when we started to go down the levels from Level 4 to 3 to 2,” Eunsol said. “Everyone [in the Coalition] started sharing how they had been feeling and it made me so proud that we were all able to do this together.”
Nonetheless, their nationally-significant efforts beg the apparent question: How, in the midst of a global pandemic, did such core support services end up being provided by a Coalition of volunteer community groups? Why wasn’t the institutional infrastructure already in place to ensure Korean New Zealand communities had adequate support from the start?
“[Working in the health sector], one of the key issues that I’ve faced – and we’ve talked about for many, many years – is the fact that Koreans and Korean statistics remain invisible because of the way in which health infometrics record the Korean ethnic group as part of the ‘Other Asians’ category,” said Coalition member Aram Kim.
“This makes it very difficult to draw out data specific to Korean health outcomes and so forth. It’s an issue that many people in health sector have already talked about and one I’d like to see addressed.”
At present, vaccination rates for Korean and other Asian ethnic communities in Aotearoa are only reported under the catch-all category of ‘Asian’ — this makes it difficult to even understand the level of uptake in specific communities and may also hide inequities in access.
The experiences of the first lockdown prompted some members of the Coalition to develop a research survey looking into experiences of Covid-19 in Asian communities in Aotearoa: Asian communities’ experiences of Covid-19.
Recording Korean leadership during the Covid-19 response
As part of the Making Histories project, we’re currently working with members of the Korean Coalition to preserve and record their nationally-significant contributions to Aotearoa New Zealand’s Covid-19 response, in collaboration with the Turnbull Library.
It’s also important to note that the Coalition is currently highly active in response to the most recent Covid-19 delta outbreak, providing Korean-language translations of daily briefings and information on how to book a vaccination appointment.
We will therefore share these stories with you online in due course. In the meantime, keep an eye on our ever-expanding Making Histories hub.