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ND Chinese community leverages ties abroad to help with local COVID-19 response

| Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Public health concerns surrounding COVID-19 led the United States to close their borders to immigrants and restrict international travel in 2020, a decision that impacted Notre Dame’s Chinese community.

However, members of this community have come together in the past year to donate medical supplies to St. Joseph County and inspire those in the global Notre Dame community to work together.

The volunteer team of students, parents, alumni, faculty and staff have contributed around $44,025, which has been used in the purchase of over 59,000 pieces of personal protective equipment (PPE). The project is still ongoing.

An overseas initiative

The PPE collected in China, including face masks, medical gloves, protective suits and alcohol sanitizers, has been donated to 18 institutions in the county, in a total of 34 deliveries.

Around 41,000 pieces have been allotted to institutions in St. Joseph County, including Memorial Hospital, Saint Joseph County Unified Command (SJCUC), the Tanglewood Trace Senior Living Community, schools, nursing homes, homeless shelters and clinics. The rest has gone to hospitals in Boston and New York.

Sophomore Izzy Cheng said she did not anticipate that the initiative would have such a far-reaching impact.

“Last March, when the crisis overwhelmed the national healthcare system, some of my friends and I recognized that a severe lack of critical medical resources in local hospitals and institutions had placed medical workers and many others in danger,” she said.

Cheng said students who had PPE wanted to give what they had to those in need.

“Meanwhile, Chinese students who received masks and gloves from their families in China wanted to donate them to those in more precarious positions,” Cheng said.

Initially, the team’s aim was to circulate the medical materials from students to U.S. hospitals. Alumni and parents located in China soon got involved by donating money and goods purchased domestically.

In the busiest time for the team, more than 40 members worked together to help with increasingly complicated tasks, like contacting manufacturers, clearing customs, sorting out different kinds of equipment and ultimately delivering said equipment to local institutions.

History professor Liang Cai said Notre Dame Chinese students, their parents and alumni became major donors of PPE, as well as the driving force of the volunteer team in managing the complex logistics of donation. As they had strong ties with China, they leveraged those ties to purchase PPE and send them to the United States.

Even after some Chinese students safely returned home in the spring and summer of 2020, their parents were still concerned with the situation in South Bend and continued to work on the project. One Notre Dame parent made an anonymous donation and arranged for the delivery of 20,000 KN95 masks to hospitals in South Bend, New York and Boston.

Cai said she was impressed and moved by the passion and commitment displayed by these students, alumni and parents. She said she wanted to help the local community because she has lived in the U.S. for 20 years and has become a citizen. However, the dedication of those who are not citizens might be explained differently, she said.

“Perhaps, the idea of tianxia in the ancient Chinese philosophy — that we are all under Heaven and share the same fate and should assume the responsibility together — resonated for many of them,” she said.

Cheng said she never thought she could stand by and do nothing.

“We are all humans, and we could not witness people around us suffering while doing nothing,” Cheng said. “We live in South Bend, which means that we are part of the community and can influence it.”

Tao Li ‘08 became involved with the initiative from the beginning. He said his experience at Notre Dame convinced him that people with the same values naturally come together and do good.

“I received tremendous help from Notre Dame and many friendly South Bend people when I was a student there,” he said. “It is time for me to give back.”

Difficulties encountered

The group’s endeavor, however, was not without difficulties. The demand for PPE has tended to be higher than supplies, so the team often had to decide which institutions on the recipient list to prioritize. Sending the products through customs was another problem, complicated by the ongoing trade tensions between the U.S. and China.

Li, who was responsible for coordinating the purchase and export of PPE, said he did not expect customs to be the biggest issue. It turned out the U.S. had complicated requirements on products exported by China. Additionally, China only allows a limited list of products to be exported.

To deal with these barriers and make informed decisions, Li spent a lot of time studying what to purchase and how to export the equipment. He said his team almost became self-taught experts on custom regulation policies on PPE.

Eventually, they decided to focus on purchasing masks suited for ordinary people, on which fewer restrictions were imposed. Those masks arrived in South Bend in August, after a three-month journey. Some protective suits that were also part of the shipment did not go through.

Cai described difficulties she encountered during the beginning of the project to convince other members of the Notre Dame community of the importance of mask-wearing, social distancing and preventing the spread — despite the significant public health effects seen in China.

“The virus is invisible but can be transmitted globally, indiscriminately going across the boundaries of nations and cultures,” Cai said. “Lessons and pain are concrete and brutal, but they are difficult to be transmitted and shared.”

Yet, Cai said, she was also encouraged by the kindness in the local community. Specifically, she described residents offering to do grocery shopping for the elders and providing free masks at their doorsteps — as well as the commitment local medical workers and University staff have made to maintain normalcy for many others.

As vaccination in the spring delivers hope, Cai said those experiences of mutual help on both an international and local level gave her confidence that fundamental values like compassion, care and pursuit of truth and scientific knowledge do transcend the cultural differences and national borders.

“Having witnessed some unpleasant incidents such as attacks on Asians during the pandemic, I have to acknowledge that reaching the ideal of ‘global citizenship’ is not easy. However, I still hope that this idea will become more universally accepted, with the collective efforts and cooperation of people around the world,” Cheng said, echoing Cai’s sentiment.

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