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Fear, discrimination, support: Chinese international students talk coronavirus outbreak

Yifei Zhang / Thresher

By Kelly Liao     2/18/20 9:13pm

As Chinese families around the world prepared for the Lunar New Year, the Chinese city Wuhan, with a population of 11 million, prepared for something darker: announcing a quarantine to contain the unexpected outbreak of the novel coronavirus. Fears for family back home put a damper on celebrations at Rice.

Lingyin Wu, a Chinese international student from Wuhan, said her family canceled plans to visit each other during the Lunar New Year holiday and remained home for weeks because of the virus. Her cousin’s family, who remained in Wuhan, is still struggling to get ahold of necessary supplies. 

“Although there are some community workers designated to support the daily purchases of essential food and medical supplies, I am worried about their living quality and mental health because being trapped in an apartment with limited food supplies can be extremely depressing,” Wu, a Martel College senior, said.

Another undergraduate student from Wuhan said he talks to his parents on a daily basis. They told him that since the city is currently under lockdown, food supplies are directly sent from local markets to their home, so they don’t need to leave the residential complex. (Editor’s note: This student’s identity has been anonymized to protect them from possible repercussions).

Fayin Zhu, a bioscience postdoctoral researcher from Wuhan, said he is pleased with the efforts the government has made to contain the virus, like setting border checkpoints and banning cars from leaving or entering the city. 

“The efforts to tackle the virus would not be successful without residents carefully following the government’s orders and staying at home,” Zhu said. 

However, Zhu said he is concerned about a shortage of medical supplies at local hospitals.

Zhu said his friends and family in Wuhan have told him that many frontline medical personnel are overworked and frustrated with the ineffective emergency relief distribution.

“I hope the government can accelerate the reallocation of medical supplies and provide adequate support for the health workers on the battlefront of the epidemic,” Zhu said. 

Local news reported that many hospitals are experiencing a shortage of respiratory masks, according to Wu. She said her friends back home are helping with organizing and transporting the donations of medical supplies to local hospitals.

To support Wuhan hospitals, the Rice Chinese Students and Scholars Association launched a fundraising event with the Houston Beida Alumni Association, according to Jian Huang, the president of RCSSA. 

“Since the outbreak of the coronavirus in Wuhan, people all over the world are making efforts to help China. When we heard that the hospitals in China are short of medical supplies . . . we decided to launch a fundraising event as well, encouraging overseas students and scholars, especially Chinese people in the Houston area, to make their own contribution to our home country,” Huang, a Lovett College junior, said.

RCSSA publicized the fundraising channels provided by the BAA, including QuickPay and Zelle, on various social media platforms, according to Huang. If the donation is made through RCSSA’s publicity, RCSSA requires donors to put “Rice” in the notes to help them identify the source of the donation. 

Huang said under close monitoring by the alumni association, the supplies they purchased were delivered by air to Wuhan Jinyintan Hospital Feb. 2. The hospital is at the forefront of the fight against the epidemic. The supplies they shipped are standard medical supplies, including protective clothing, masks and goggles, which are purchased according to the hospitals’ actual needs, according to Huang.

“Currently, we are just providing a reliable source of donations from Rice students and teachers. However, we are also welcom[ing] any people or organizations in Houston which would like to join us to help,” Huang said. 

Although they’re far away from home, a number of students from Wuhan expressed how important paying close attention to the epidemic is for them. Zhu said even though he is busy with his studies, he follows the news online closely and keeps himself updated every day. 

“For many Chinese international students, although we cannot go back home, our hearts are always with people in Wuhan,” Zhu said. 

Wu said she was a little bit worried when she first heard about the outbreak of the virus, but did not take it as an urgent issue. She said when she knew one of her family’s friends and his wife had been severely infected and were sent to intensive care units, she started to feel very distressed.

“Even though they were transferred to one of the best hospitals in Wuhan, there is no effective treatment to alleviate their symptoms,” Wu said.

Wu said she has a high school classmate who lost her father due to the virus infection. Now her classmate also finds herself infected but needs to take care of her mother, who had been diagnosed with cancer years ago but was not hospitalized.

“Since all the hospitals have been used for coronavirus patients, there are no hospital beds for patients with other types of diseases.” Wu said. “I feel so heartbroken and sorry for the tragedy in her family and I cannot even imagine the agonizing pain that people like her have to endure.”

Other Chinese international students, even those not from Wuhan, share the same feelings. Yi Luo said while she feels fortunate that she is away from the epidemic, she is also guilty and frustrated that she could not offer any direct support to the virus-afflicted region. 

“I feel unsettled because of the news about the inefficiency of some domestic charity organizations like Wuhan Red Cross, and concerned about the mismatch between the type of masks that frontline doctors need and that of what people donate,” Luo, a Wiess College sophomore said. “[But] being away from China, I don't know what are some better ways to help my home country except donating money and medical supplies.”    

Luo said she is aware of the limitations of the secondhand information she receives from social media.

“Because most people in my social circle are from middle-class families who don’t live in Wuhan, I couldn't have a comprehensive understanding of the current living situation of other communities like lower-income families and disabled individuals, solely based on online sources,” Luo said. “Since it is impossible for the news to cover every individual of the socially disadvantaged groups, it is even harder to imagine their suffering under the lockdown.”  

Although a virus cannot identify human borders, some students noted that people have begun to draw social barriers as a result of the virus. Jiayan Liang said he has percieved widespread regional discrimination following the coronavirus panic. 

“I feel bad that we tend to treat people from Wuhan and even China like the virus itself and forget the fact that these are people like you and me who have a family and a life full of memories,” Liang, a Wiess freshman, said.

Luo expressed frustration at the racist ideas conveyed against Chinese people on social media. 

“I am infuriated with how some Americans make racist jokes about the misfortune that Chinese people are undergoing,” Luo said. “It is Chinese people tortuously suffering from the virus, rather than the Chinese virus threatening the world.”  

However, many Chinese international students said they’ve received emotional support from the Rice community. Wu said people around her have shown sympathy for the tragedy in her hometown. She said she was touched by encouraging messages, such as the supportive emails for Chinese students from President David Leebron and other university faculty members, especially amid the growing prejudice against Chinese people in American society.  

“I was quite angry when seeing the rising racism in the international community, especially the derogatory reference to Chinese in a recent Wall Street Journal article,” Wu said. “But the supportive emails from President Leebron and other university faculty members help relieve my anxiety.”

Liang, who said he carefully read every email sent by Leebron and the Office of International Students and Scholars, said he was also moved by how Rice values every individual student’s feelings. 

As the number of infected remains high three weeks since the lockdown, all students eagerly hope the government can act more quickly to alleviate the epidemic.   

“My ultimate wish now is that China can combat the virus as soon as possible so that everyone can return to their normal lives and stay healthy,” Zhu said.

[2/18/2020 11:46 p.m.] This article has been updated to reflect a newer version of the draft that was erroneously copied back.

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