COVID-19 from the Chinese Perspective

How Chinese families are affected by the world's first pandemic after 10 years

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Sanitation officers are stationed at the doorway to a vegetable market in Shanghai, China. Courtesy of Wang Xiu Ying (name changed)

Driving down the desolate streets of Shanghai, few people linger by bus stops and closed storefronts. Only their eyes are visible, their mouths covered by thin films of paper. Chinese New Year seems different this year; maybe it is the lack of people in the temples or how the normally bustling streets have gone bleak and quiet. 

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), as of March 18, 7,807 people have died from COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. The people of China hide in their homes and take extra safety precautions to avoid contracting COVID-19. The respiratory virus originated in Wuhan, Hubei, a central province in China. The virus causes symptoms similar to the flu such as fever, cough and difficulty breathing but has only been fatal to the elderly and people with preexisting health issues. Though more than 75% of global deaths resided in China from December to early February, cities and provinces that were struck weeks after the virus emerged prepared for the spread of the virus into these regions by enforcing safety and health regulations in public places. 

“We aren’t too scared,” 57-year-old Wang Xiu Ying said, a Shanghai citizen whose name has been changed due to fears of punishment for exposing information under China’s censorship policies. “Just do what the doctors tell you to do: wear a mouth mask, wash your hands when you return from outside, change your clothes when you come back also. Wearing a mouth mask benefits yourself, too. Protecting yourself is protecting Shanghai.”

Whether it be for health or fashion, wearing mouth masks has long been a cultural norm for Chinese people, but with rising fears of infection, masks have transformed into a symbol of safety.

“It has become socially taboo to go outside without a face mask,” junior Eric Xia, whose relatives live in An-Qing, Anhui Province, said. “People will yell at you if you go outside without wearing one. Everyone is fearful of the disease.”

Wang said COVID-19 affected 2020 Lunar New Year celebrations in late January to early February as well. Though the Communist Party of China (CPC) mandated a week extension to the usual one-week-long vacation, the 40-day event seemed strange and unusually short to Wang when her annual customs of visiting temples and celebratory gatherings was limited to staying with her elderly parents without friends and extended family.

As the death toll climbed over 1,000 in early February, only one month after the WHO declared an international public health emergency, supplies such as instant foods and protective wear quickly disappeared from store aisles. While Wang and others stocked up on supplies, Chinese sellers on Taobao, a Chinese Amazon-esque website, found economic opportunities in desperation and fear: selling mouth masks for increasingly high prices and tricking anxious people into buying fake and even used mouth masks fished from dumpsters. 

“It’s unbelievable and disgusting,” Wang said. “Even with the virus, there are still people looking to take advantage of you. The [mouth masks and the protective gear] that these people are taking advantage of are things that doctors, nurses and the sick really need right now. We don’t just need the money. We just need these materials.”

While Chinese citizens are stuck at home, foreigners who visited their families for Chinese New Year were trapped thousands of miles away from home, under quarantine and unable to return. On Jan. 30, the United States Bureau of Consular Affairs raised the travel restriction to China from Level 2 to Level 4, which means “Do Not Travel.” Flights from China were then channeled through only seven U.S. airports, and in early February, all flight services to China were suspended by the United States Department of Transportation.

Though more than 1800 cases in the U.S. and at least 50 deaths in Washington state as of March 18 alone caused schools to shut down and forced students and employees to work from home, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) public notices and health recommendations for COVID-19 do not call for the requirement of wearing a mouth mask in all United States regions.

“It makes sense for the CDC to not recommend wearing face masks,” Xia said. “Panic in the public has made it so that some hospitals don’t even have access to face masks, so by not recommending people to wear face masks, more resources are available to the hospitals.”

On Feb. 29, the U.S. became more restless with the first American death related to COVID-19 in Washington. Mouth masks had long been sold out in local pharmacies and online stores, like Amazon and eBay. Supplies like water and toilet paper from department stores soon followed. In late February, Costco Wholesale Corporation enforced a two-unit daily limit on water, towels, paper towels, toilet paper, Clorox wipes and rice.

“It’s a good precaution to stock up on supplies in case the coronavirus epidemic gets worse,” senior Kevin Tong, whose grandparents live in Shanghai, said. “But at this time [before the government declared a national emergency], it doesn’t seem necessary to stock up on supplies, but you never know what’s going to happen in the future”

As fear turned to panic, people of all ages turned to social media to ease their minds. Rumors and jokes circulated around social media platforms, such as Instagram and Twitter, both exaggerating and degrading the extent of the virus.

“I feel like social media has much to do with the panic that is occurring around the world right now,” Xia said. “Portraying the coronavirus as a ‘global disaster’ has resulted in the frantic purchasing of food, water, face masks, etc.”

Around the world, far from COVID-19’s origins, Asians have been facing racial discrimination triggered by the virus. For the perpetrators, the offensive jokes are harmless, but others find themselves in more malicious situations. From riding public transportation to simply walking on the sidewalk, hate crimes and public humiliation directed toward Asians have arisen. 

In London, 23-year-old Chinese student Jonathan Mok, who detailed his assault on his Facebook page, was assaulted while walking down Oxford Street by a group of teenagers who shouted racial slurs at him. In New York, the University at Albany’s Barstool Sports Club hosted a coronavirus-themed party and posted a video on the club’s Instagram, drawing backlash from Albany’s Asian American Alliance.

“Really it boils down to more racism than realistic concerns for the virus itself,” Tong said. “If they were truly doing this in fear of Asians having the virus, they would not have even approached these Asian people in the first place.”