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Mourning, fear of discrimination, empowerment: ND Chinese students discuss impact of coronavirus on community

| Saturday, March 14, 2020

The outbreak of coronavirus started in Wuhan, a major city in China 7,200 miles away from South Bend. However, before it became a world pandemic in March, the Notre Dame Chinese community had been affected by the epidemic for two months.

The impact was not on physical health, but mental health.

“I felt a deep sorrow every time checking the news of deaths of patients and medical staff,” said junior Jiadai Li, who is from Shanxi Province, China.

Before coronavirus largely impacted the United States, discrimination against Asians had become apparent. A video spread on Twitter showing a passenger on New York subway, who berated an Asian man and sprayed him with air freshener.

“I felt indignant watching that video,” freshman James Chen said. ”The racist passenger should be held accountable for hate crime.”

Chen is originally from Jiangxi Province, China.

Facing the growing epidemic and related issues, students started to take action.

In January, several Chinese students established a donation network that delivered 50,000 N95 respirator masks, 1,500 protection suits and 150 goggles to over 40 hospitals in Hubei Province, the center of the outbreak of coronavirus, at the time of an extreme shortage of medical resources in all hospitals.

On Feb. 23, Chen sent a letter to the Editor of The Observer that stated “nobody should be labeled and dehumanized as virus spreaders from their ethnicity.”

Senior Erin Shang, who is from Beijing, initiated a petition on March 10, asking the University to consider making all courses remote for at least two weeks following spring break.

”There is suffering and pain for everyone, but we also try every effort to combat the pandemic and we hope it will pass soon,” said Miranda Ma, the senior advisor for Asia at Notre Dame International.

Ma, who is originally from Jiangsu Province, China, expressed hope.

“The Sakura in Wuhan will bloom soon,” she said, quoting a currently popular metaphor in China. “The Spring is coming.”

“My heart went broken every time I thought of my daughter.”

The coronavirus outbreak started in January. Shang said when she was sitting in a cafe in Miami enjoying winter break, her phone started buzzing with news about confirmed cases and cities shut down due to the virus.

“I immediately called my family to make sure they’re okay,” Shang said. “When my mom coughed on the phone, it nearly gave me a heart attack.”

Shang said she was more worried about her grandparents.

“They don’t live with my parents and they couldn’t do online grocery shopping, so they had to go out every day,” she said. “They’re old and if they catch the coronavirus, there is a high risk that they may die.”

According to the Chinese CDC, 47.7% of coronavirus patients were above 50. The fatality rate of coronavirus was 14.8% in people 80 or older, reflecting the presence of other diseases, a weaker immune system or simply worse overall health. By contrast, the fatality rate was 1.3% in people in their 50’s and 0.4% in people in their 40’s.

Li, whose parents are both doctors, said there was a severe shortage of medical supplies in her parents’ hospitals at the beginning of the outbreak.

“They just couldn’t find masks,” Li said. “There was no place to buy masks and barely did they have the stocks. … I was so worried about my parents. I kept telling them to pay attention to sterilization at work every time I called them.”

One month later, this chain of concern reversed, when coronavirus spread more widely in the United States.

Licun Yu, a Notre Dame parent who lives in Hubei Province, said he was really worried about his daughter.

“My heart went broken every time I thought of my daughter, living alone in a foreign country, far away from home, and the coronavirus epidemic there was getting worse,” Yu said. “Who’s going to take care of her if something happens?”

Yu said he repeatedly told his daughter to stay on campus, wear a mask and wash her hands.

“She always said ‘Yes, I know it, dad,’ but I still worry about her,” Yu said. “When my daughter asked about me and her mom, I always consoled her saying ‘We’re good. Don’t worry. You take care of yourself and don’t let us worry, okay?’”

Yu’s daughter, Xuelin Yu, will graduate this May. Yu said he and his wife had planned to attend their daughter’s commencement, but their plan had to be canceled due to the travel ban.

“It’s such a pity that I couldn’t share this moment with my daughter,” Yu said. “I won’t be able to see her in a really long time. I miss her.”

However, Yu’s parents aren’t the only ones who are concerned.

Freshman Kayle Liao, who is originally from Sichuan Province, said her parents told her about the confirmed cases and policy changes in the U.S. every single day. They worried more about her safety than their own.

Editor’s Note: Liao is a news writer for The Observer.

“I should take good care of myself so that they can stop worrying about me, although they would always be,” she said.

She canceled her spring break trip to Florida.

“If they know I go traveling under the epidemic, they can’t fall asleep at night,” Liao said.

With the increase of students’ and parents’ worries, Ma said her workload has significantly increased.

“Every day I received the phone call from Chinese parents saying ‘Should I fly my kid back home?’ or ‘Should my child change to a single dorm room?’” Ma said. “Children are the priorities of many parents and they have every reason to be worried. I completely understand. I try my best to console them, provide them information and let them know that the University is able to protect our students.”

Ma said she serves as a bridge between the campus and parents.

“During the coordination, it’s very heartwarming to see how supportive the parents are and how much the students trust me,” Ma said. “Their appreciation makes me feel all the hard work is paid off. I’m grateful to help our students and their families and to help Notre Dame operate smoothly during this special time. I’m lucky to be a part of the Chinese community at Notre Dame.”

Since January, students have been following the news of coronavirus in China, and some of the news included desperate situations.

“On the news, I saw doctors died in the front line, uremia patients and pregnant women couldn’t get medical aid because the city was shut down and medical staff continued to work with the extreme shortage of supplies,” Jiadai Li said.

These hundreds of tragic stories drastically contrasted with Jiadai Li’s experience of studying abroad.

“When putting down my phone, I looked at the campus of Notre Dame as such a peaceful bubble, which made me even more sadder,” Jiadai Li said.

The death of Dr. Li Wenliang on Feb. 7 from coronavirus impacted Chinese students at Notre Dame.

Li Wenliang was called in by the police and forced to sign a statement denouncing his warning as an illegal rumor on Jan. 3 after telling his classmates about the new coronavirus that had already killed hundreds in China.

His death prompted nationwide anger and frustration at how the government mishandled the situation by censoring information. He has since been referred to as a whistleblower and hero.

At the time of Li Wenliang’s death, Jiadai Li was doing assignments at the Duncan Student Center. Suddenly, news and posts popped up on her phone about the death of Li Wenliang, expressing outrage and grief.

“The tears immediately filled my eyes, and I went out of Duncan crying,” Jiadai Li said. “I was crying and laughing at the same time because the whole thing was so absurd that I don’t even know I should laugh or cry.”

Jiadai Li said the government responses to Li Wenliang’s statements and death have been contradictory.

“The government forced Dr. Li Wenliang to admit to wrongdoing for doing a right thing, and the news of berating him was everywhere on [pro-government] TV stations,” Jiadai Li said. ”At the same time, the government also set him up as a model and ‘mourn’ his death. … It’s so hypocritical and absurd that I just can’t stop laughing, and feeling sad.”

Jiadai Li said she felt so powerless when seeing how arrogant and arbitrary the authoritarian government treats ordinary citizens.

“I don’t think Dr. Li Wenliang is a hero because he just warned his classmates and family about the new unknown virus and this behavior was really normal,” Jiadai Li said. ”He didn’t intend to confront the power.”

However, because the tragedy happened to an ordinary person, it resonated with people and made them even angrier, since everyone could be the “next Li Wenliang,” Jiadai Li said.

“When we mourn Dr. Li Wenliang, don’t we also mourn ourselves?” read a quote from a podcast that Jiadai Li sent to The Observer.

After the death of Li Wenliang, she posted a portrait photo and the police’s letter berating Li Wenliang on Instagram with a crying emoji but received no comments. Meanwhile, on her Wechat and Weibo — Chinese social media sites — the timeline was filled with candles, showing mourning from a large number of Chinese students.

“We Are Waves of the Same Sea”

Racism and hate crimes against Chinese and Asian people have spread along with the coronavirus.

In London, a Singaporean student was beaten up by a group of men who told him “I don’t want your coronavirus in my country.”

In Los Angeles, a 16-year-old boy was attacked by bullies accusing him of having the coronavirus because he is Asian American.

Wikipedia item, “Xenophobia and racism against Asians related to the coronavirus pandemic,” lists more than 150 incidents as of Saturday.

Chen said he was angry when watching a racist incident on the internet, and said the perpetrator “should be held accountable.”

He said discrimination is rooted in the existing racist stereotypes of Chinese people.

“The coronavirus may be an outlet or excuse for such hatred,” Chen said. “Also, Chinese immigrants haven’t spoken out a lot in history, and some people just think we’re easy to be bullied.”

The coronavirus outbreak’s origin in China may be another cause of discrimination.

“[That] the coronavirus appeared in China doesn’t mean it’s Chinese’s fault,” Liao said. “I mean, it might be some individual’s ‘fault’ because they ate wild animals and the virus transmitted to humans, but the majority, like 99% of Chinese, don’t eat wild animals and they shouldn’t be blamed.”

According to Vox, the popular theory states that coronavirus derived from a farmer’s market in Wuhan where some people sold wild animals and coronavirus was transmitted to several species before finally infecting humans. The piece contained a note, clarifying that the majority of Chinese people don’t eat wildlife animals and those who do “are the rich and the powerful –a small minority.”

“The majority [of] Chinese are innocent and we’re also victims,” Liao said.

Liao added that although some blame the Chinese for spreading the virus, “people don’t know they carry the virus.”

The surfacing of racist incidents in the United States has made students worry about going out of campus.

“I’m scared when seeing the hatred and discrimination cases on the news,” Liao said.

Because of seeing news about racism against Asian people in the time of coronavirus, Liao said she felt the need to alter some travel plans.

“I planned to go to Florida during the spring break but I canceled it,” she said. ”If I book AirBnb or take Uber, some people might not welcome me because I have an Asian-looking face.”

The worry of discrimination doesn’t prevent some Chinese students from wearing masks if going to big cities.

“I can wear a mask and draw a smile on it, and writing ‘healthy’ alongside,” Liao said. “Maybe being sarcastic is the only way to keep me safe from racists and coronavirus at the same time.”

Although there are no known substantial hate crime cases at Notre Dame so far, there have been several unfriendly experiences for Chinese students.

“One of my Chinese friends has heard people joking that ‘Chinese people eat everything,’” Chen wrote in his Letter to the Editor. ”Another of my Chinese friends was seriously suspected of having the coronavirus by her roommate, even though she had checked with the hospital several times.”

After his letter was published Feb. 28, accountancy professor Tonia Murphy, sent Chen an email in response.

“I’m sorry to hear of the difficulties you have encountered here,” Murphy said in the email. ”We here at Notre Dame must do better. Thank you for the much-needed reminder not to take xenophobic views. … We are all God’s children, deserving of respect and concern.”

In an email to The Observer, University President Emeritus Fr. Edward Malloy said any actions of discrimination against Asian students during the coronavirus outbreak would be ”totally unacceptable.”

“In times of national and international tension and uncertainty, sometimes the worst in human nature can be revealed,” Malloy said. ”However, I am confident here at ND that such situations can bring out the best in each of us and all of us together.”

Liao agreed unity is essential during this time.

“What actually solves the problem is that we all take precautionary measures, united together, help each other to combat coronavirus,” Liao said. “The enemy is the virus, not people.”

When coronavirus became a world pandemic, unity became more important. This solidarity was exemplified when Chinese tech company Xiaomi donated masks to Italy. The boxes that contained the masks were labeled with a quote from Roman philosopher Seneca.

“We are waves of the same sea, leaves of the same tree, flowers of the same garden,” the boxes read.

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