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It’s been one year since COVID-19 forced us to lock down, mask up, and rethink nearly every aspect of our lives. To mark the moment, The Oaklandside’s reporters and editors interviewed twelve people who either live or work in the city about what they witnessed and how they endured one of the last 12 months.

A West Oakland grocery worker recalls the panic buying of last March. A Mask Oakland organizer explains how their wildfire stockpile of N95 masks got repurposed for the pandemic. A Sobrante Park principal remembers the moment they realized graduations would have to be virtual. Dottie Moore of Everett and Jones Barbeque tells the harrowing story of waking up after a five-week coma due to COVID.

Of course, it would be impossible to capture all of the innumerable ways COVID-19 has touched the lives of Oaklanders—and nearly 200 residents of our city are no longer here to share their stories, having died of complications related to the virus. As we look ahead to reconnecting and rebuilding, it’s astonishing to look back at how Oaklanders found ways to support each other in the most fractured of times.

March: Empty shelves, panic buying, and price gouging

Mike Davie was working as a butcher at Community Food Market in West Oakland during the early days of the pandemic. Credit: Amir Aziz

On Friday, March 6, Mike Davie, then a butcher at Community Foods Market in West Oakland, was attending a monthly staff meeting with his coworkers. The topic on everyone’s mind was COVID-19. “Nobody quite knew what to expect,” Davie said. He remembers people trading theories and predictions about this new virus: it would be no different than the flu, it would hit only older people, and so on. “Crazy to think about now,” said Davie.

On his next day off, Davie made a Target run for home supplies, including bath tissues. “The jumbo-pack of the Target brand was on sale for $11. I thought it was a good deal and grabbed it,” he said. “A week later is when the shortages started.”

The following week, Davie joined some friends at Hatch, a bar in downtown Oakland. “The tension was already there,” he said. “The whispers on my social media were something like, ‘If you go out to bars, tip heavy [because] business might slow down.’” 

Around the time the Grand Princess cruise ship docked in Oakland, carrying vacationers sick with COVID-19, “things started to get serious” and Davie’s grocery store got swamped. “Everyone was out of toilet paper and word got out that we were fully stocked. It went from nobody to packed.” A few days later, the county issued its first shelter-in-place order. Pantry essentials flew off the shelves, and prices on most items shot up.

Davie kept a journal and used social media to post photos from work. By mid-April, he was wearing masks, including some gifted by customers.

Davie recently got vaccinated at Fremont High School, eligible due to his status as a grocery worker. He feels relieved but nowhere close to normal. “I still don’t know how to deal with this shit,” he said. “I don’t think anybody does.”

— Azucena Rasilla

April: A dash to get people masked

Mask Oakland founding organizer, Quinn Jasmine Redwoods, moving donated masks from a holding facility. Credit: Amir Aziz

When Quinn Jasmine Redwoods founded Mask Oakland in 2017, the group’s mission was to get N95 masks to residents impacted by seasonal wildfire smoke. That changed on February 28 last year, when Redwoods received an email from the Alameda County health department alerting them to the coronavirus. By March 3, Redwoods was posting information about the virus on Mask Oakland’s social channels. “70 cases in California and Washington combined,” read one tweet

Soon, the organization was receiving messages from residents asking for masks. “People started asking us right away,” said Redwoods. “We were trying to straddle this whole message of saving them for healthcare workers. We had a lot of N95s because that’s what made sense in prior fire seasons.” 

By April, Mask Oakland had given away most of its supply. “I was calling all of our vendors” to check on available stock, said Redwoods. Prior to the pandemic, Mask Oakland’s strategy had been to purchase masks at wholesale prices from vendors in other cities not experiencing wildfires. “But now, the entire world was rushing to their [local] hardware store.”

Early on, Mask Oakland prioritized getting PPE to hospitals serving low-income Black and brown communities. Kaiser Oakland, Kaiser Richmond, Highland Hospital, and Seton Medical Center each received between 500 to 2,000 masks from the organization. “We gave all of the N95s that we had,” Redwoods said. 

Redwoods felt the situation would get worse before getting better. “I remember telling someone that the number of sick people now, the number of cases now, is going to be the number of deaths in a few months,” they said. “People were like, ‘No, we’re going to flatten the curve.’”

— Azucena Rasilla

May: Finishing school without in-person ceremonies

Principal of Madison Park Academy Primary, Sabrina Moore, outside of the school in Oakland, CA. Credit: Amir Aziz

In most years, May is a lively month at Madison Park Academy, a K-12 school in East Oakland’s Sobrante Park neighborhood. There are graduating seniors to send off, fifth graders to promote to middle school, and kindergarteners to congratulate for finishing their first year. There’s an end-of-year dance with food supplied by parents and an annual kickball game between school staff and fifth graders. 

But with school buildings closed due to the pandemic and uncertainty about when it would be safe to gather again, school administrators had to decide how best to honor their students. 

“It’s a huge deal here. I remember one mom cried and cried,” said Sabrina Moore, the school’s K-5 principal. “We were, as a team, trying to figure out, “Do we break some rules and still do it?’”

Schools in Oakland had been physically closed since March 13. Teachers had scrambled to create online lessons for the semester’s final eight weeks, while the district raced to get laptops and internet hotspots to families. It had been a tumultuous year, and everyone at Madison Park Academy wanted a reason to celebrate. 

The school held a call with fifth-grade parents to talk about options. They considered a drive-by ceremony but ultimately decided to livestream the event. It was the first class that Moore had served as principal from kindergarten through fifth grade, and during the online ceremony she offered them some advice—and a mild warning—about middle school. 

“Keep dreaming and keep working and keep pushing and keep doing all of the things that we know you’re capable of,” she said. “And if you don’t, I am going to come find you. I know what schools you’re going to.”

On the same day as the ceremony, the U.S. surpassed 100,000 deaths from COVID-19. 

Staff continued to check up on students during the final weeks of the school year, making home visits and helping families troubleshoot technology issues. Most assumed they’d be able to see each other again in the fall. 

“We’re going to have a family reunion and we’re going to have an opportunity for my babies to come back and do their proper promotion,” Moore told families. “Wear whatever you want to wear and walk the stage so you can get your certificate and I can give you a hug.”

— Ashley McBride

June: BLM demonstrations sweep the nation, and local students lead

Jacqueline Azah posing for a selfie with Angela Davis at a June 19, 2020 Port of Oakland protest. Credit: Courtesy of Jacqueline Azah

Jacqueline Azah remembers exactly where she was when she first watched the video of George Floyd being killed by Minneapolis police.

“I was actually in bed. I was laying down, and I was on social media,” recalled Azah, who was staying at her parents’ home in Tracy because Clark Atlanta University in Georgia, where she attends college, had temporarily closed. “No trigger warning, no nothing. I just clicked on the video.”

Azah cried after watching the disturbing images of police violence. Although she understood why the clip, and others like it, were being shared to galvanize a response, it still bothered her. “We’re very desensitized to Black death,” she said.

The next day, Azah reached out to friends in hopes of organizing. She got in touch with Akil Riley and Xavier Brown, two other college students who were back home in the Bay Area. Together, they helped organize a massive student-led protest on the first day of June that drew over 15,000 people to Oakland, starting at Oakland Tech High School. 

Alongside George Floyd, Azah wanted to lift up the names of women killed by police, like Breonna Taylor and Sandra Bland. On the steps of Oakland Tech, she told a crowd of thousands: “I’m here today to tell you about the most disrespected person in America, the most neglected person in America, the Black woman!”

“The police system needs to be abolished,” Azah said above a roar of protesters’ affirmations. “It cannot protect people like us because it was never meant to protect us.”

As the rally wound down, thousands marched downtown toward the Oakland Police Department’s headquarters. Earlier in the day, Oakland’s City Administrator Ed Reiskin had imposed an 8 p.m. curfew. About 20 minutes prior to that time, protesters were met by hundreds of riot police who shot tear gas and rubber projectiles into the crowd. OPD later claimed that officers saw protesters preparing Molotov cocktails, but never provided proof.

The rest of June was a flurry for Azah. “My whole life revolved around this. I ate, slept, and breathed BLM. I’d wake up, go out, and protest. I’d be up to midnight making tear gas solution kits for protesters, and hand them out at marches.”

After the protests, Azah poured herself back into a grassroots group she co-founded, J&H New Beginnings, which distributes care packages to unhoused communities and others in need. She also doubled down on her work to reduce gun violence through March for Our Lives’ Youth Congress. In Stockton, where she often does outreach to people living on the streets, she heard stories of unhoused people who used to live in Oakland and San Francisco but were pushed out.

“Oakland is a symbolic place for so many different issues and people, for the LGBTQ+ community, for the Black community, for union workers. Their history is seen in the history of Oakland.”

— Darwin BondGraham

July: Case numbers mount, and an Oakland restaurateur wakes up from a lengthy COVID-related coma

Dottie Moore outside of her home in East Oakland. Moore was in a coma for five weeks due to complications from contracting COVID-19. Credit: Amir Aziz

When Dottie Moore woke up in a hospital bed at Kaiser San Leandro, she thought she’d been there for only one night.

Then she noticed her nails, which she’d just painted a peach shade, had grown so long it looked like she had a French tip. Plus, the doctor knew her little sister’s name, which Moore thought was strange.

It didn’t take long for Moore to learn that she’d been in a coma for five weeks, which she believes was medically induced to save her life. While unconscious, she’d also suffered a stroke and pneumonia, her kidney had stopped functioning, and she’d developed dry gangrene on her toes as a result of a blood clot. The 43-year-old, who was told she was the youngest COVID-19 patient admitted to that ICU, would have to learn to walk again.

“The doctors told me how blessed I was, how lucky I was. They kept saying it was a miracle I made it,” Moore said. 

She agrees, but it’s a variety of luck that can feel utterly painful. “I’m just happy that I did make it, because when you look at the numbers of people that did not make it, and know that you were almost one of those numbers, it kind of triggers my PTSD,” Moore said. “I just turn off the TV and don’t watch as much news as before.”

Moore was born and raised in Oakland, and if you don’t know her, you almost certainly know her family’s restaurant. Her grandmother opened the legendary BBQ spot Everett & Jones. Growing up, Moore was always a popular party guest, since she’d bring trays of food with her. She later worked at the Jack London Square restaurant as a manager, taking time off when the pandemic struck to care for her 14-year-old son who has special needs.

Moore said she took social-distancing seriously and thinks she may have gotten sick from her son, who is very tactile and often touched things at the grocery store. He tested positive during the same summer period but was only mildly sick. Initially, Moore thought she had a regular cold, and ordered cough syrups to try from Instacart, until one day she couldn’t breathe.

Moore’s harrowing experience has endowed her with a strong sense of responsibility. 

“My biggest thing is bringing awareness, especially in African-American and brown communities, about how real it is. You don’t see us represented when the news is covering COVID. You don’t see Black people in hospitals, or young people. That was the first ball that was dropped,” she said. “Now there’s this push for the vaccine in Black and brown neighborhoods. But people are afraid because, in our past, the government hasn’t been so upfront with us.”

Moore, who’s delighted to have received her first dose, still has a fuzzy memory at times, still has a home care aide, and struggles to sleep. “There’s a little anxiety—I’m just afraid I won’t wake up again,” she said. But she’s so grateful to be alive that she finds joy in the mundane. 

“Listening to rain, wind blowing. The sound of cars can be soothing to me—I know that’s funny,” she said. 

Moore’s horrific ordeal changed her body in many ways, but she’s decided to see the positive side. “I had to buy a whole new wardrobe. That’s been fun,” she said. And of course, since she woke up with a manicure gone awry, “my nails have been several different colors.”

— Natalie Orenstein 

August: An Oakland firefighter battles two crises at once

Oakland Fire Department Captain Porya Jeddi at Fire Station Number 17 on High Street in East Oakland. Credit: Amir Aziz

As new COVID-19 cases in Alameda County surged to over 10,000 a day for the first time in mid-August, seasonal wildfires in Sonoma County and elsewhere were beginning to ravage Northern California and blanket the Bay Area in smoke.

Oakland Fire Department Captain Porya Jeddi and his team at Station 17 on High Street spent much of the month responding to emergencies on both fronts, while also trying to keep the virus from spreading within their own ranks.

“We were starting to look at the way we do things: Should we be eating together? Should we bring our work clothes from the fire engine inside the firehouse? How do we deal with this coming home to our families? And if we get tested, is that test even going to be accurate? It just felt like we were with everybody else—there were a lot of questions, and we were just trying to do our best,” said Jeddi. 

On August 18, Jeddi, along with other firefighters from across Alameda County, was called to the frontline of the Lightning Complex fire in Sonoma County. After a grueling two weeks fighting the blaze—it was a testament to the fire crews and “a pretty big deal,” Jeddi said, that nobody at the massive basecamp supporting the operation came down with COVID—it was straight back to responding to emergencies in Oakland. “I literally had enough time to clean up, say hi to my family, and I went back to work for two days.”

Responding to calls in East Oakland, a hotspot for coronavirus transmission, Jeddi recalls he and his team “were constantly running into people with COVID. And a lot of times we didn’t know if we had it, and we didn’t want to get other people sick when we went into a house.”

Wearing protective equipment and social distancing only added to the difficulty of helping community members experiencing emergencies, said Jeddi. “If you have somebody’s family member that passed away, they’re going through a lot. And the awkwardness of having a mask on, not even being able to give them a hug—it was, for me personally, one of the hardest things. I don’t care how many years you’re a firefighter, you feel that pain when you’re on those calls and see families that can’t get on an ambulance and go to the hospital with their family members.” 

Jeddi came to the U.S. from Iran in 1987 with his own family—his mom and brother—and the three put down roots in Hayward. But Jeddi, who was just entering high school and spoke no English, struggled throughout his teenage years. “I lost my way through high school,” he said. “I didn’t have a path.” One day Jeddi witnessed a fire and watched as firefighters pulled a boy out of a burning house. He was inspired to take some night classes and even did a ride-along with OFD. He joined the Tracy fire department in 1999 and achieved his goal of transferring to Oakland in 2000. 

Despite how difficult the work was last August, Jeddi never lost sight of his obligation. “This might sound a little corny, but we as a fire department are here to protect and serve. And what were we going to do? Say no, we’re not going to do this? That’s not how that works. It was our job and we did it. And yes, it was stressful.”

— Jacob Simas

September: Orange skies and distance learning, with no end in sight

Alani Wilson, 15, is a freshman at Oakland High School. Credit: Courtesy Alani Wilson

As the Bay Area’s summer surge in coronavirus case rates began to taper off in September, some private schools started to reopen for in-person instruction. But Alani Wilson, a freshman at Oakland High School, was one of 36,000 Oakland Unified School District students learning from home, indefinitely. 

Meanwhile, fire season was bearing down on California. Oaklanders and other Bay Area residents woke up on Sept. 9 to burnt orange skies, a result of wildfire smoke rising high in the sky and blocking out the sun. Wilson remembers learning about the odd day after scrolling through Instagram that morning. She and her friends started making jokes about it, but the mood turned serious when they learned one of the fires in Southern California had been sparked by a “smoke-generating pyrotechnic device” at a gender-reveal party in San Bernardino County. 

“All this for a gender reveal?” she said.

Over the next few days, the air quality worsened in Oakland, and Wilson, who has asthma, wasn’t allowed to leave the house. During the day, she’d look out the window and see ash and debris on cars and covering the ground. At night, Wilson woke up in coughing fits. 

A month into the school year, Wilson was still trying to get into a rhythm with her Zoom classes. She had language arts, math, computer science, American history, and an advisory period for checking in with her teacher. Wilson was living at home with her mom, aunt, younger sister, and older cousin, and the three kids shared a single desktop computer. 

“We didn’t have a schedule. It was just random,” the 15-year-old said. “Like ‘Can you get off the computer now because I have this class?’ Or, ‘Could you hurry up because my work is late?”

Wilson often had to log off of her cousin’s Google account when it was time for her own classes, or help her sister, a fourth grader, get set up for hers. 

“Transitioning into [high school] was hard because of Zoom classes, doing work by yourself, not having any actual people to help, and being afraid because we’re like, ‘Whoa, we’re really in a pandemic,’” Wilson said. “When are we going back to school?”

 — Ashley McBride

October: Turmoil at Alameda Health System as healthcare workers strike for safety

Kaveinga Reyes, a frontline health care worker at the Alameda Health System’s Eastmont Wellness Center. Credit: Amir Aziz

When COVID-19 was first detected in Oakland, Kaveinga Reyes braced herself. “It’s here. How are we going to deal with it? Do we have enough equipment? How will we protect ourselves?” wondered Reyes, a health worker at Eastmont Wellness Center.

She knew it would be difficult to balance her work responsibilities with her family’s needs. “I have an elderly mom that lives with me. What will I do with my kids? Their schools are closed.” Her husband also lost his job shortly after the first shelter-in-place order in March.

By April, reports of PPE shortages were already widespread when Reyes was told during a morning staff meeting that she’d have to reuse the same face mask all day—a recommendation that she said raised a red flag because it went against best practices.

Reyes said what worried her most of all was that AHS managers didn’t seem to be listening to frontline workers. “Going into work, I’d have anxiety and was always wondering, what will the changes be today? My main concern was always the safety of our patients and employees.”

The deep East Oakland neighborhoods surrounding her clinic quickly became epicenters of the pandemic. About 12% of the population in the clinic’s zip code would eventually test positive.

“We’re smack in East Oakland and everyone walks in and wants a test and is coughing,” said Reyes.

At the time, AHS wasn’t testing its employees unless they had multiple symptoms of COVID-19, and Reyes worried she’d bring COVID home to her family. Like other health care workers, she set up a decontamination station in her garage where she would change out of her work scrubs and shoes each day when she got home. 

In July, her worst fear became a reality when her elderly mother got sick with COVID-19.

“I had to leave her at the emergency room because they weren’t allowing people in there,” recalled Reyes. “I’d call and check on her constantly. She was in the hospital for eight days.”

Her mother recovered, but then Reyes contracted COVID. She sent her kids to stay with relatives and quarantined in her garage.

By October, the conflict within AHS had reached a boiling point. Workers across the system were calling for the county to take back control of AHS from the system’s independent board. Union negotiations over pay, benefits, and workplace safety measures had stalled, with workers claiming management wasn’t listening to their needs, and administrators saying they were doing their best during a global health crisis, with an underfunded public hospital system and universal shortages of PPE.

On October 7, Reyes and thousands of other AHS workers went on strike for five days.

“I was there all five days,” said Reyes about joining picket lines in Oakland and around the county. “I brought food and tried to keep the momentum going and help people realize why we were there.” The strike went virtual on its final day because someone on a picket line tested positive for COVID-19. 

Later that month, Alameda County’s Board of Supervisors voted to remove the entire AHS board, and the system’s CEO resigned shortly after. Reyes believes the strike laid the groundwork for positive change.

“It was crazy,” said Reyes. “But it was also the most empowering feeling I’ve ever felt.”

— Darwin BondGraham

November: Elections are held, and the winter surge begins

District 7 City Councilmember Treva Reid in front of a mural during a community cleanup day in February in East Oakland. Credit: courtesy Treva Reid

As Treva Reid was wrapping up her winning campaign for the District 7 City Council seat in November, the winter COVID-19 surge was just beginning. 

Reid’s district, which encompasses deep East Oakland neighborhoods composed primarily of Black and Latino residents, has been especially hard hit. The pandemic is also personal for Reid: Multiple members of her family contracted the virus, including her daughter who is immunocompromised. Caring for her child at home, said Reid, made campaigning a challenge. 

“I had lost loved ones in March and April,” Reid said, “and in November I had about eight family members who were diagnosed with COVID, and that transitioned into a very deadly December for me and loved ones around me.” 

Losing loved ones early in the pandemic, said Reid, informed her work as a public affairs representative with PG&E prior to joining the Oakland City Council. Reid says she worked extensively with Alameda County’s Office of Emergency Services and with the city of Oakland to provide PPE and other services for impacted communities. 

“A lot of our dollars at PG&E were directed to emergency support through our partnerships with community organizations that were on the ground serving our Black and brown communities,” she said, such as SOS Meals on Wheels and Shiloh Church, which provided food to East Oakland residents. 

Asked whether the public sector could have done more to support Oakland’s Black and brown communities in the early days of the pandemic, Reid said everyone was doing their best. “I think we all were really scrambling and struggling to respond to an unprecedented pandemic that none of us had ever had to come face to face with,” she said.

— Ricky Rodas 

December: Getting creative to keep a cafe afloat

Latorra Monk, owner of Oaklandia Cafe, sits outside of her shop. Credit: Amir Aziz

Latorra Monk, 34, always dreamed of opening a cafe. As a teenager, she’d worked at one in Stockton, where she lived for a few years. Monk loved catering to customers and hoped to one day open her own spot in Oakland, where multiple generations of her family have lived since moving from the South during the Great Migration in the 1920s. 

Monk realized her dream last June when she opened up Oaklandia Cafe in Pill Hill. But by December, the pandemic had nearly ended it. “I was probably one of the slowest months for us,” she said.

Monk had accumulated a steady clientele of health care workers from nearby Alta Bates Medical Center and elsewhere in the neighborhood, who enjoyed unwinding at the cafe’s patio while enjoying one of her decadent sandwiches. Outdoor dining had become a lifeline for the cafe, but California’s shutdown order on Dec. 7 cut off that crucial stream of revenue. 

Monk said her sales dropped by 50% the day the order was announced. “If this shutdown is as restrictive as the first one, I won’t be able to make it,” Monk recalled thinking. “It was a really bad day.” 

Once reality had set in, Monk went to work. She identified the times of day she would require more help and adjusted her employees’ schedules as needed. She paid close attention to neighboring doctor’s office schedules and began offering them lunchboxes, which consisted of her specialty sandwiches, a bag of chips, and a cookie. 

Monk’s lunchbox deals with the medical offices kept Oaklandia Cafe alive in December. “I make a personal connection with all my customers,” Monk said, “and that personal connection with the doctors really helped me.” 

Serving essential workers during the pandemic led Monk to research her family’s history in Oakland and their contributions to the community. She learned that one of her great, great aunts on her grandfather’s side owned a house in West Oakland and ran a bed and breakfast for Black visitors, who were prohibited from staying at white-owned hotels in the area.

“They found a respite there and that was amazing to me,” Monk said. The discovery “made a lot of sense and explained why I’m so driven, because there was someone in my family who was once that way.”

— Ricky Rodas 

January: When you’re unhoused, ‘the elements’ can be scarier than an epidemic 

Audrey Apodaca, who also goes by the name Little Feather, at the 77th Ave. encampment where she lives with her dog, Angel. Credit: Amir Aziz

For Audrey Apodaca, the pandemic has made it much more difficult to earn a couple bucks.

Apodaca lives at the 77th Avenue homeless camp near the Coliseum, and on most days brings a cardboard sign to San Leandro Street, where she stands on the median and asks drivers for spare change. 

“I could see a big difference in COVID,” said Apodaca, who grew up on the Ute reservation in Southern Colorado, and also goes by the name Little Feather. “People don’t want to roll down their windows.” Otherwise, she said, COVID-19 has little impact on her daily life at the camp, where she contends with issues that feel more urgent.

“The wind is the worst, the rain is the worst,” she said. “I’ve been washed out and blown apart. That’s the only thing that’s killing me—the elements. It ages you out here.” 

After the tarp that protects her tent flew off on Apodaca’s first night on 77th Avenue, she “learned to tie things down, and got some clamps.” But nobody could have been prepared for the night of Jan. 18, when offshore weather blasted unprecedented, extreme winds throughout Northern California. For many of Oakland’s unhoused residents, it was a night of flying tarps, toppled tents, damaged belongings, and little sleep. 

Apodaca found a temporary reprieve: she called up her boss, whose house she cleans, and asked to stay there overnight. Her boss, who met Apodaca while she was panhandling and hired her for some odd jobs initially, agreed.

Apodaca and her husband left Colorado some years ago, after she was let go from her long-time job. They traveled throughout the southwest and California in their motorhome, with her husband, a heavy equipment operator, picking up work. Then he died suddenly of a heart attack, the vehicle was stolen.

“I was broke, I lost my husband, I lost my motorhome, I lost my dog,” Apodaca said. “It was like a country-western song. If I played the record backwards, I’d get it all back.” 

Since then it’s been challenging to get back on her feet: “It’s a vicious cycle,” she said. “You can’t get a job without an address, but you can’t get an address without a job.”

Apodaca knows that many of the people she asks for spare change are struggling themselves—and all the more so a year into the pandemic. 

“In my day, it was upper class, middle class, and lower class,” she said. “You could go to school and take night classes, and people cheered you on. Now it’s at the point where the rich are getting richer, and the poor are getting poorer. We’re like any third-world country now, with the rich elites and the peasants. Anybody is a paycheck away from homelessness.”

— Natalie Orenstein

February: Vaccination efforts expand, and Chinatown attacks draw international outcry

Ming Ho, 74, outside his home in Eastlake, holding certificates awarded by the Oakland Police Department for his volunteer public safety work. Credit: Jacob Simas

Eastlake resident Ming Ho, 74, is no stranger to community service. Originally from Guangzhou in mainland China, Ho immigrated to Oakland from Hong Kong in 1983 for a job in the fabric industry. But it’s his volunteer work over more than two decades here—as a translator, community outreach worker, neighborhood safety officer, food bank distributor, and elder care provider, among other things—that’s kept him grounded in his adopted home.

It’s no surprise then that in February, when residents of long-term care facilities were prioritized to receive the vaccine, Ho could be found at the Noble Tower Apartments, an assisted living facility near Lake Merritt, helping other seniors navigate the vaccination process. 

“My job was to talk to seniors who were scared, to get them to the vaccine site and ask them to listen to the doctors and nurses,” said Ho. “I also made sure they didn’t go too far afterward. It was also my job to observe them for 15 minutes after they got their shots, to check for signs of side effects.”

Ho estimates he must have helped hundreds of seniors at the apartment complex—a 15 story building with 15 units per floor—get vaccinated. He received his own vaccine shots there, too. “It made me happy,” he said with a grin.

Around the same time, Oakland Chinatown was making national headlines due to assaults against seniors in the neighborhood that were caught on video. As disturbing as those incidents were, Ho said, they’re nothing new. During his years as a volunteer with the Oakland Police Department’s neighborhood services division and as a graduate of OPD’s Cantonese Citizen’s Police Academy—a community engagement program meant to strengthen the relationship between the police and Chinatown residents—Ho says he witnessed or was aware of numerous instances of Chinese seniors being attacked. Robberies were so common, said Ho, that he and other volunteers would form community patrols to accompany elders to the bank to deposit their cash on paydays.

All the recent media attention on Chinatown, said Ho, may just be stoking fears, especially among the elderly. “When I see the reporters asking seniors at the bank if they’re scared, I think it’s not right. Asking doesn’t help the situation, and raising fear within the seniors when they’re already fearful just makes things worse.”

When it comes to his own personal safety, Ho said his attitude hasn’t changed. “I’m always concerned about my safety and I never provoke anyone. Even though I know martial arts, I stay very humble when I’m walking the streets.”

Ho looks forward to being back out on the town, now that he’s fully vaccinated. “I felt so bored being home during the pandemic. Going out to serve the public is so much better than staying at home.”

— Reported by Jacob Simas. Interview translated by Crystal Liang.