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My family is suffering from coronavirus. So am I

| Friday, February 28, 2020

My hometown is breaking down.

The coronavirus has caused over 1,600 deaths within a month, which has resulted in severe economic stagnation and social disorder in many Chinese cities, including my hometown Nanchang. A three-hour drive from Wuhan, where the virus originated, it has over 700 infections already. My whole family lives there. My parents have told me the masks are sold out, most businesses are suspended and intercity travel is banned. No one is on the street; no one is at the airport or the train station. It has turned from a city with 5 million residents into a ghost town. However, the hospital is jam-packed. Everybody is worried they have the coronavirus; those who have a cold even go see a doctor, crowding out people who really need help.

The government is trying its best to prevent further spread of the virus. For example, going outside is not a right anymore. In my family’s neighborhood, each household can only have one person go out every other day to buy the necessities for life. There is a policeman checking on every person who has stepped out of their house. My parents cannot go to work; my sister cannot go to school. I have cried several times when I’ve called my mom, but she always smiles and says: “Son, be happy. At least you are fine.”

No, Mom, I am not.

The coronavirus outbreak has put the whole world in a panic. However, it also raises some fears other than health concerns especially in the Western countries: xenophobia towards Asians.

In the first week of February in New Zealand, Asian parents received an anonymous email asking their kids to “stay home” and referring to them as “disgusting virus spreaders.” The same week in the New York City subway, someone called an Asian woman wearing a face mask “diseased bitch” and attacked her. People may consider that such xenophobia is only limited to personal assaults, but it is not true. The racist words were spoken outright in newspapers and by government officials. The Province newspaper based in Vancouver, Canada, used “CHINA VIRUS” in huge block letters to refer to the coronavirus on their front page. Coronavirus is indeed from China, but when the H1N1 influenza from the U.S. caused 12,000 deaths, were there any media calling it “American Virus?” Calling it “China virus” is racist and goes against journalistic ethics. If the front page is not conspicuous enough, then the words spoken by US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross must be. During an interview, he has said this virus crisis in China is a good opportunity to bring back jobs to America. Even though it’s right for America to protect domestic jobs, it should not be said at such a time when the Chinese are suffering from losing their families and Asian Americans are being discriminated against. Furthermore, referring to such a crisis as an opportunity shows that this person, and by implication the U.S. government he is representing, has zero human empathy for those who are suffering from the coronavirus.

While the coronavirus has not reached Notre Dame, xenophobia has. One of my Chinese friends has heard people joking that “Chinese people eat everything.” Another of my Chinese friends was seriously suspected of having the coronavirus by her roommate, even though she had checked with St. Liam’s and the hospital several times. She had to make a lot of schedule changes, which negatively impacted her academic performance and emotional wellbeing. While all these disgusting dramas were happening, internal communications finally sent out an email to everybody regarding the concerns about the coronavirus. However, I have not seen a single word to console our Chinese students who have families suffering from the virus. I have not seen a single word to regard the discrimination against Asian people because of the virus.

Did the same people also write “Building Community the Notre Dame Way?”

While there are xenophobia and carelessness, there is still love. Many people have donated money and medical supplies to China; many people are praying for China. I am so grateful for the donations and the prayers, but when I walk on the campus and feel insecure that people might want to stay away from me, our community is still on shaky ground. Therefore, I urge you, my only family here, to keep in mind that we are all people, and nobody should be labeled and dehumanized as virus spreaders from their ethnicity. Discrimination cannot save us from getting infected, but empathy and love can certainly help those whose lives are disrupted by the coronavirus.

James Chen
Feb. 23

The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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