Q&A with California Senator Richard Pan

Dr Richard Pan
Portrait by Max Whittaker
As a pediatrician, state Sen. Richard Pan—who represents the Sacramento region—staunchly advocates for public health and safety with a high-profile, pro-vaccine message, broadcasted at the risk of bullying, death threats and even physical assault. Now with the recent rise in anti-Asian rhetoric and hate crimes in California and across the nation, he ramps up his activism from the front lines of the fight for social justice. We talk to the outspoken Chinese American politico about everything from his controversial opinion of anti-vax extremists to his personal experiences with bigotry and what all of us can do to advance equity and civility in our society.

You’ve been at the center of the vaccination debate in California long before Covid. As vaccinations ramp up, what are your biggest concerns?

Actually making sure people have accurate information about the vaccine and the disease it’s preventing. You would hope—you would think—people would have a pretty good idea by now. But unfortunately, there are still a lot of myths about Covid itself—people dismissing it as either not serious or not even existing. And then, of course, that they have accurate information about the vaccines themselves. Yes, they are safe and effective. No, they do not contain microchips. It’s always amusing to me that someone’s posting on Facebook about how they can get tracked by the vaccine. I’m like, “Yeah, you have Facebook on your phone and you’re worried about being tracked?” OK.

At the same time people do have legitimate questions. It’s legitimate to ask, “Well, did they rush the vaccine?” It was quite a miracle of modern science to come out with a vaccine within a year of the virus. This vaccine has been thoroughly tested in Stage 1, 2 and 3 trials involving tens of thousands of people. We continue to monitor the vaccines now that they’ve been delivered to millions of people. We have a lot of safety data on these vaccines and you can feel confident that they’re safe and effective.

What do you say to folks who aren’t necessarily anti-vaxxers but who have general concerns about vaccines?

I encourage them to share their questions and where the sources for concern come from. I’m a pediatrician. I do see parents who sometimes say, “Well, I’m feeling nervous about vaccines. I hear they might cause autism.” OK, let’s talk about that. Where did you hear this? Why do you think this might be the case? There are now numerous studies showing no link between vaccinations and autism other than potentially a temporal one, which just means that autism tends to be diagnosed [around the age kids are vaccinated].

I remember having a discussion with someone who thought that poor nutrition and access to fast food were reasons why kids were vulnerable to disease, and that if we only fixed their diets, then their immune systems could naturally take care of these diseases. I pointed out that [centuries ago] the Native Americans had a very good diet and lived outdoors. I mean, they were certainly not in the kind of environment we have now with cars and industry and so forth. Ninety percent of them died when the Europeans brought measles, influenza and smallpox to the continent. I think that made her reflect a bit on why vaccines might be necessary.

What’s your take on reopening schools as a pediatrician?

First of all, we want to be sure that people are safe—the children, the staff. We also want to be sure that children get educated and there are certainly social benefits from kids being in school. But Covid vaccines aren’t approved for young children. The Pfizer vaccine is approved for age 16 [and older] and Moderna is approved for ages 18 and above, and they’re now doing trials for [younger] teenagers. So when those trials are finished, we’ll see whether [the vaccine] is approved for younger kids.

We understand that for a lot of families, distance learning has not worked. There are many barriers to distance learning, including technology, but also there’s social isolation for children. Getting them back to school is something that we want to do, but we also have to do it safely. There’s certainly evidence to show we can do that safely, especially if we can get the overall number of cases down. To open anything, including schools, it’s all about us working together to get the virus load down in the general community. That’ll make it safer for everybody. That means things like wearing masks, which can reduce transmission of the virus by a fairly large amount. When people go around and say, “I don’t want to wear a mask,” that unfortunately endangers the rest of us.

In a recent Washington Post op-ed, you wrote that “anti-vaccine extremism is akin to domestic terrorism.” What did you mean by that?

Think about how hard we’re working to get vaccines to people—setting up vaccination centers like the one in Dodger Stadium and other places, as well as through pharmacies, community clinics and so forth. And yet, even as we’re doing this, we have extremists actually trying to prevent people from getting those vaccinations by essentially obstructing their ability to enter the vaccination sites and harassing them while they’re waiting in line for the vaccine.

By the way, [these extremists] were going around unmasked. So if they had Covid, they would be spreading it to people waiting in line. In many ways, what they’re doing is undermining our ability to fight off this pandemic and trying to bully and threaten people who have already chosen to get the vaccine. It’s a deadly disease that has killed over 500,000 Americans. We had the [death toll equivalent] of 9/11 every day for a while in January. Think about our response for 9/11. [Anti-vaxxers] are interfering with our ability to protect people. What do you call that?

You’ve also called for social media companies to ban Robert F. Kennedy Jr. for his anti-vax statements. What are your thoughts on how social media helps or harms your efforts?

Social media has its place and can be a positive force in organizing and getting the word out, but unfortunately right now there is a lot of harassment and bullying on there. You can report it or some people say just block [users], but there’s some question about the use of some of the tools that are available. There are indications that some extremists intentionally try to follow and troll elected officials’ accounts, because they know officials are generally discouraged from blocking them [due to First Amendment concerns].

The problem is when the “sticks and stones” of online trolls turns into hateful and violent rhetoric. It turns into real-life violence. We saw that here in Sacramento [in August 2019] when I was physically assaulted on the street by an anti-vaxxer who, by the way, livestreamed it on Facebook—he was proud of what he did. That was followed by [a vaccine bill protester] who threw blood onto the Senate floor. It looked like it was thrown at me because it was splattered around me.

One could argue that given the behavior of the [U.S. Capitol] insurrectionists on Jan. 6, many of them [were encouraged] on social media by lies and disinformation. They were proud of what they were doing until the FBI was called because they were livestreaming a lot of their stuff on social media. We need to think about the role social media plays in promoting extremism and facilitating hate and violence.

Speaking of violence, anti-Asian hate crimes are on the rise. What are you working on to curb that in California? What can legislators do to help?

First of all, speak out, but even more importantly, think about passing policies to address this issue. I’m authoring a bill, SB 17, to address racism as a public health crisis. The reason it’s a public health crisis is that we see different outcomes based on race. Just looking at Covid alone, we know that Black Americans are more likely to die of Covid and Latinos are more likely to get exposed to Covid. Pacific Islanders have the highest death rate from Covid [in California]. We can talk about the persistent gap in infant mortality between Blacks and whites, and maternal mortality too—even if you’re a rich Black person like Serena Williams, you still have a higher risk of dying. It’s not purely socioeconomic and we need to recognize that and deal with it. So what my bill does is look at our policies and how we do our budgeting from this equity lens.

Unfortunately we’ve had a long history in the United States and here in California of prejudice and violence against Asian/Pacific Islanders. You think about the Chinese Exclusion Act, the lynchings down in Los Angeles that happened in the 1800s [the 1871 Chinese Massacre], the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II, the murder of Vincent Chin in Michigan in the ’80s, and the attacks on Sikhs, South Asians and Muslims after 9/11.

Then with Covid, we had a president who—we saw the picture of [his speech notes, which had] the word “Corona” lined out and replaced with “Chinese.” I believe that the API community refuses to be silent anymore. Especially after the mass murder [in Atlanta on March 16] of eight people, six of them Asian women. [The gunman] deliberately went to three Asian businesses, and then the local law enforcement said, “Well, he had a sex addiction.” Are you saying this had nothing to do with race?

We’re also seeing attacks on Asian seniors just walking down the street, with suddenly someone coming up and whacking them or even killing some. We have a serious problem here. We have a lot of work to do, and we need to raise this awareness about the challenges that we’re facing as a country in terms of trying to deal with not only our past, but the future of America.

Aside from the assault in which you were shoved, have you been a target of bullying or threats?

Since I did my vaccine bill in 2015, there has been fairly constant harassment and threats from anti-vaccine extremists, coming in different ways at different times. I’ve had people stalk me across the country. Oftentimes the bullying and the threats have a racial tinge to them. Or not even so much of a tinge. [People have said to me] “Go back to your country.” Except I was born in the United States. This is my country. The perpetual foreigner, right? And, of course, people look at you pulling their eyes sideways and all that. People say that I’m trying to impose [the regime of] communist China, calling me Mao Zedong or Pol Pot. Just on and on. You just kind of smile and keep walking.

You must have developed a thick skin by now.

If you don’t have a thick skin, what do you do? Are people going to listen, do people care? I think the API community is finding its voice recently. Not to say we haven’t always had a voice, but oftentimes when we’ve said something, people haven’t listened. We’re told to be quiet, like children. Be seen, not heard, or not even seen, just fade into the background. That’s not acceptable. We won’t tolerate this anymore. But we need people to stand with us.

What can the average citizen do to help stop Asian hate?

I appreciate the fact that people have been speaking out in solidarity. I think it’s also important for bystanders to speak out, to know how to intervene and de-escalate. There’s a [social justice] group called Hollaback and civil rights groups like Asian Americans Advancing Justice that have references to bystander trainings people can get. People need to know that they’re not alone, that if they’re being harassed or attacked, they’re not alone and that other people are supporting them.

Also, call for support of policies and legislation that try to achieve equity. And try to support Asian not-for-profits and Asian businesses. When Covid was just starting, there was already a fall in income and revenue in many Asian businesses because of prejudice and discrimination. People were hearing about this Covid virus [that originated in China] and stopped going to Asian businesses.

You’re obviously very outspoken and have been a lightning rod for criticism. Has there ever been a moment in your political career when you’ve been like, “I’ve had it—I’m going back into medicine full-time”?

The reason I went into medicine was to improve people’s health, particularly [that of] children. That’s why I went into pediatrics. The reason I ran for office wasn’t because I wanted to stop being a pediatrician. In fact, I still continue to volunteer at a clinic. I ran for office because I was frustrated that as a pediatrician on the front lines, I saw that we needed policy changes in order for me to be able to better take care of the kids I was taking care of.

But if you’re trying to act with good intentions, shouldn’t we do something about the bullying, harassments and threats? We can disagree. That’s fine. We can always have a debate about what’s doing good or not. But do I need to be assaulted on the street? Do I need to have death threats directed toward me repeatedly? Is that what people need to go through in order to engage in public service?

On that note, what are your thoughts about the Newsom recall effort?

It’s a distraction and a waste of money. I understand that people have some disagreements with the governor. Covid has been a challenging crisis. Did he do everything perfectly? I don’t think anyone did everything perfectly, and frankly, he had to deal with it in the face of the prior federal administration, which unfortunately actually discouraged good public health practices.

This governor has shown significant, serious leadership in dealing with the crisis. It’s kind of easy to ignore the fact that if he didn’t act, then things would be a lot worse than they are. I get it. Everyone’s frustrated. Many of the things he’s asked us to do are hard, but they’re based on what we need to do to try to stop the pandemic. I’ve had my disagreements with him occasionally about what we should do next, but ultimately, I believe Gov. Newsom made his decisions based on his team’s best understanding of the science and their assessment of what degree of cooperation they could get. None of this works unless people actually follow [the mandates]. The virus will spread based on what people actually do, not what the policy is. We have to recognize that the governor is not a dictator. He has limited powers.

As for you, you’ll term out of office next year. What are your post-Capitol plans?

[Laughs] Well, I’ve got a year and half to figure it out.


This interview was conducted in late March and has been edited for length and clarity.