The faces behind COVID-19
Exploring the stories of members of the MVHS community impacted by the novel coronavirus
Senior Wenyu Chen was filled with apprehension as her plane traveled the 15 hours from Beijing to San Francisco on Jan. 25 after visiting China to celebrate Chinese New Year with family. While she was required to wear a mask on the flight in order to protect herself and others from the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, it did little to assuage the fears that built up after witnessing the panic as it spread during her visit.
Chen had already missed four days of school in order to visit her family when the COVID-19 outbreak fears had not spread. However, within days of her arrival in China, Chen started to see the effects of the virus on daily lives, even though she was 12 hours away from the epicenter of the outbreak in Wuhan.
“Towards the end of my visit, everyone’s already wearing masks and we could not see anybody outside,” Chen said. “Everyone’s really cautious and there’s barely any cars on the street, especially for Beijing where the traffic is huge every single day. It is the one time that there was no traffic at all anytime of the day. Everyone was trying to stay inside as much as possible.”
According to Chen, the atmosphere in China shifted while she was there, and one such impact was avoiding contact with other people.
“I feel like in [Beijing], it was a little different, but everyone’s really cautious,” Chen said. “You don’t see this happening frequently. When you go out to restaurants there are barely any people and if there are, they are sitting at opposite corners.”
When she arrived at SFO, Chen was not screened for the virus since she had not come from the epicenter of the epidemic. Chen returned to school the following Monday, but after two days decided to self-quarantine for the safety of other students.
“I thought, maybe I should self-quarantine,” Chen said. “And then on Friday, my counselor called me to [come] to school to talk to her. She said you can’t really self-quarantine because it is not yet permitted by the district, so all my absences for self-quarantine would be unexcused. And they told me to go back to school the following Monday.”
Chen’s counselor is Monique Balentine. Balentine declined to comment specifically on Chen’s situation.
“My general rule with any student on this campus would be to try to follow the district policies and procedures,” Balentine said. “So I work with all the other staff members on campus to try to interpret that and do the right thing. And it’s difficult because it is an ongoing thing, so the policies and procedures are changing [all the time].”
The Monday that Chen returned to school, however, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) enacted a procedure that stated anyone returning from any part of China to be quarantined in their home for two weeks following their return. Now, for legal reasons, Chen had to stay home for an additional week.
Chinese teacher Zoey Liu is also currently impacted by COVID-19 as her hometown is Wuhan, where most of her friends and family still reside.
“The numbers look very scary when you see it in the news, but Wuhan is a very crowded city with a population of at least 10 million, so the ratio of people infected in comparison is rather small,” Liu said. “Thankfully, everyone I know, including my friend circle, from my hometown are fine, safe and healthy.”
Chen and Balentine also both have loved ones in areas where the infection rates are high. Chen’s mother is currently in Beijing and Balentine’s boyfriend is in Italy, where over 6,000 people (at the moment) have been infected and the prime minister just ordered locking down the country and not allowing people in or out.
“It’s kind of hard because you can’t be there with your loved ones as they’re going through something that could be potentially dangerous or fatal,” Balentine said. “At least for me, it’s a very difficult thing.”
Liu also commented on the negativity among the student body towards Chinese culture, specifically Chinese students making fun of their own culture. She mentions a specific incident of how students in her class make jokes on their homework assignments.
“We have this daily assignment to use the vocabulary [the students] learned in order to form sentences,” Liu said. “Students try to be funny and will have sentences such as ‘The Chinese like to eat bats’ and I don’t think that their intention is to discriminate against anyone, but that’s how it comes across.”
Liu attempts to get rid of the stigma by embedding the information about COVID-19 into her curriculum. She hopes to educate students on how to approach the situation and to boost the morale of those whose lives have been impacted.
“A project idea that I had was to write a love letter to the people suffering right now in China,” Liu said. “What can the students say to encourage them? [The students] can use Chinese calligraphy and create drawings as well to show their support.”
A similar situation occurred in 2003 when the SARS virus started cropping up around the world. Chen was one at the time, but has heard about it from her mother multiple times. She feels as if the older generation is much calmer about the epidemic since they have experienced something similar before. However, she disagrees with the attitude many of the younger generation are taking towards it.
“After seeing how bad the situation is in China, and then coming back here and hearing all the jokes about coronavirus is sometimes extremely uncomfortable because people are constantly dying and here like people are laughing about it,” Chen said. “And especially now it’s not only China right. It’s so near us, in Santa Clara, it’s here and people are still laughing about it. And I just feel like that is unacceptable.”
Junior Roya Ahmadi was at the doctor’s office, as she was feeling sick. Because Ahmadi had attended a Chinese New Year’s celebration at the Chinese consulate weeks before, her mom asked the doctor to check if she had coronavirus. Although the doctor made it clear that the chance of Ahmadi having the coronavirus was exceedingly low, it still took a trip to a doctor’s office to end the mini-hysteria.
“It’s ridiculous because if any of those people had ended up with coronavirus, they would have notified people,” Ahmadi said. “But I think [the paranoia surrounding this disease] feeds into the thoughts [of people]. I don’t blame my mom for paranoia. I’m concerned, but it definitely is a part of how a lot of people now are just like, ‘Oh, anyone that’s Chinese must have this disease,’ [and] there have been racist things said on the internet, which is obviously really harmful.”
Ahmadi believes the media portrayal has contributed to this spreading fear; specifically, she recalls the graphs that many news sources have of the coronavirus spread charts. This, in addition to its constant headlining on articles, is what Ahmadi believes are causing the paranoia surrounding the virus.
Junior Fiona Luo has also witnessed changes in her family’s lifestyle due to fears regarding the coronavirus. For example, students have stopped attending the Chinese school near her house and her parents avoid shopping at Chinese grocery stores or eating at Chinese restaurants.
“I think a lot of it has to do with the media because we hear all of these really drastic numbers about all of the things that are going on in China,” Luo said. “And I think that has a mental impact on especially Chinese Americans in this area [since] … the majority of the outbreak is in China. That’s just what’s happening right now, even though there’s some outbreaks and other countries.”
According to Luo, she feels that Chinese Americans may be more conscious because of their exposure to Chinese media, while those who aren’t Chinese may hear more from the general media.
“I think in the U.S., coronavirus takes up a lot less [of a] personal standpoint,” Luo said. “There’s this Chinese website called WenXueCity my mom reads a lot. There’s so many personal stories of people with the coronavirus, and there’s a lot of details that never pop up in Western media, like for instance they’re running out of body bags, or how a lot of patients are so sick but they can’t even get into the hospital, and that kind of stuff is often overlooked in Western media and the personal responses.”
Biology teacher Renee Fallon agrees that the media has exaggerated stories like these, and attributes the fear to the novelty of the disease.
“With an emerging virus like the coronavirus, part of what makes it scary is that people don’t know,” Fallon said. “We don’t know how it’s transmitted or its mortality rate; it’s a rapidly evolving situation. Everybody always freaks out over the unknown, especially when it first starts.”
University of Chicago assistant professor of medicine Jessica Ridgway also believes that because the disease is unknown, there is a lack of credibility — she believes not all the data that is globally shared is accurate.
“It’s in the news a lot, the idea of this new virus killing people that we don’t know that much about, I think is concerning,” Ridgway said. “And I also think some of the way it’s been handled from a public health standpoint, in particular, China hasn’t been the most trustworthy. We don’t know if the numbers we’re hearing from them are reliable — it’s hard to know what’s true so I feel like that also adds to some of the fear.”
Fallon also feels that China doesn’t have a very good track record of giving accurate information. According to The New York Times, the late Dr. Li Wenliang was one of the first to warn about the coronavirus, but was reprimanded by police and had to sign a document stating that his warning was illegal. Li later passed away due to the coronavirus. Legal activist Xu Zhiyong was detained after accusing China of covering up the coronavirus.
Despite panic reactions to mass media coverage of this new virus, Fallon emphasizes, however, that the flu is a larger threat than the coronavirus.
“The flu kills [tens of thousands of] Americans every year, and most people don’t know that,” Fallon said. “How many who are freaked out about the coronavirus have even gotten a flu shot?”
Ridgway feels that the average person being concerned that they will be affected is out of proportion to the actual risk. Ridgway specifically sees this in the cases of people scrambling to buy masks, and with stores selling out of masks despite the fact that these masks are not a necessity as of now.
According to Fallon, masks cannot stop the virus, only potential droplets containing viruses, making them rather ineffective in areas where there are few people who have contracted the virus. The people who actually need masks are those who are coming into contact with sick people.
“In an environment where there are few people sick, the mask just kind of makes you look silly,” Fallon said. “The best thing to help prevent you from getting sick: don’t hang out with people who are sick, wash your hands regularly for at least two minutes, just ordinary soap, doesn’t have to be [anti-]bacterial, and avoid touching your face, especially eyes, mouth or nose.”
These are the same recommendations for preventing the contraction of the regular flu.
“I don’t want to downplay it,” Ridgway said. “I think it is certainly a concerning thing that there could be a worldwide pandemic of a new virus that we don’t know a lot about. But I think the level of alarm of people in the U.S. at this point for their everyday lives is out of proportion … the risk to the general public of becoming infected at this point is exceedingly low.”
As soon as it was announced, individuals of Chinese heritage became the scapegoats of the coronavirus.
You are to blame for the coronavirus.
Your dirty eating habits, your unsanitary work conditions, your government.
Go back to your country, stop infecting us.
Headline after headline, news organizations are constantly covering COVID-19, or coronavirus, an outbreak that originated in Wuhan, China; the virus has not only spread throughout China but also through global social media, feeding us misinformation about the illness. As a result, many Chinese Americans have experienced anti-Chinese sentiment from others.
This is not the first time epidemics have resulted in increased xenophobia. A similar situation occured during the SARS virus, which originated from southern China, where people of Chinese descent received xenophobic backlash against the outbreak as well as the Ebola outbreak, which originated from the Democratic Republic of Congo and resulted in discrimination from the U.S.
The coronavirus has plagued the internet with racist comments about China along with unsupported information about the virus. According to the Los Angeles Times, the fear of the coronavirus has formed hoaxes and rumors about the illness, as well as hysteria among students and adults.
Conspiracy theories have spread throughout websites and social media; according to PolitiFact, there have been theories ranging from Bill Gates predicting the outbreak to the Chinese government using the coronavirus as a bioweapon for population control. Though these theories seem ridiculous, there are still many who believe them. But not long after, we realize that these theories are just the tip of the iceberg targeting China.
Recently, there has been a widespread rumor that eating bats caused coronavirus. According to a Foreign Policy editorial, a Chinese blogger received backlash for posting a video of her eating bat soup since many people on social media were convinced that the coronavirus was caused by China’s “dirty” food choices. On Youtube, this video received racist comments targeting China; some of these comments even came from Chinese Americans, who were ashamed of having Chinese origins.
Regardless of whether bat soup influenced or didn’t influence the spread of the virus, it is definitely not the sole cause of the outbreak. According to The Guardian, the coronavirus could have originated from a seafood market that was illegally selling their products to consumers. In addition, the blog video was not filmed in Wuhan, but rather in Palau, Micronesia. The bat soup myth is just another example of how easy it is to use the media as a tool to justify oppression such as racism.
UC Berkeley has also gained attention through its xenophobic implications in an Instagram post about the coronavirus. Berkeley alumna Adrienne Shih posted a snapshot of the post, which described common reactions for the coronavirus. Everything seemed normal until the last symptom was written: “Xenophobia: fears about interacting with those who might be from Asia and guilt about those feelings.” Shih accuses @UCBerkeley of normalizing xenophobia. Treating xenophobia as a ”common reaction” to the coronavirus encourages individuals to criticize Asian individuals, which reinforces the cycle of racism.
These instances are examples of the spread of false information about the coronavirus and how it has not only reinforced the stereotypes of Chinese individuals but also perpetuates xenophobia towards other countries. Something as simple as eating bat soup has resulted in disgust for China’s “uncivilized” eating habits and “dirty” nature. Reactions towards these rumors show us how easy it is to deceive individuals with fake news and to criticize people’s culture and cultural background through social media.
As more and more outrageous stories emerge on social media, the truth disappears. Information about the true severity and suffering of Chinese individuals goes unnoticed. Stories describing the real experiences of the coronavirus are not given proper attention. As a result, no one will sympathize with those patients. Rather than acknowledging the severity of the outbreak and finding ways to help, the media turns against China by pointing fingers at them, almost as if blaming them and not welcoming them to America is the cure to the coronavirus.
It’s quite strange that certain countries — like China and Guinea — have received xenophobic reactions. However, the deadly flu that originated from the U.S — which killed over 10,000 people — still never received a single racist, xenophobic comment, while other countries’ epidemics have resulted in racial slurs that shun an entire nation.
It is in no way justified to let Chinese Americans feel shameful for their ethnic origins. It is not factually accurate to criticize China’s culture and to blame it for causing these outbreaks.
It is not moral to hate and shun one race because of a virus. Each country has had its own share of epidemics, and blaming them is never going to stop the outbreaks. China needs support to combat this deadly epidemic — the last things they need right now are racial slurs and death threats targeting their culture and government.
And no, this is not just a “China problem.”
The possibility of the world ending from a pandemic or even a zombie apocalypse never seemed impossible to me. From watching zombie apocalyptic movies like “World War Z,” to playing games with world ending objectives by pandemic like Plague Inc. and even learning about the black death, I was always aware of the possibility of a disease ending the world.
Therefore, it wasn’t a shock to me that after I heard about the outbreak of the Covid-19 (caused by the novel coronavirus) in Wuhan, I instantly felt the complex emotions I felt while watching “World War Z” and playing Plague Inc. — I felt the déjà vu that made me think that I was just living inside a game, and that I already knew how it was going to play out. Though originally met with panic, my emotions slowly eased into guilt and anxiety, stemming from the idea that there was a huge aspect of my life that was no longer under my control.
Originally, I didn’t think much of this virus — it’s 2020, after all — if there is any time period that has the materials and knowledge to fight off a 4% fatality rate virus that has only infected a few thousand people, it would be now, right? Yet the count of infected people has grown to almost 126,000 people in less than two months, and that’s still an underestimate.
It wasn’t until I called my mom for the first time since she flew to Shanghai, China for work that I really started to understand the severity of this virus: she was trapped at home and couldn’t go anywhere. I opened my Wechat app for the first time in a while to ask my friends from an international school in China how they were affected by the outbreak. It was the same situation I heard from my mom and more. School was cancelled, competitions were cancelled, people were trapped at home, only leaving to buy groceries.
Even though the situation could be a lot worse, I can’t help but think about how I would have reacted if the outbreak happened a few years earlier, when I was still in China. Would I have been excited that school got cancelled? Would I be freaking out? I don’t know, but I do know that I wouldn’t just be living life normally like I am right now.
I guess that’s where my guilt comes from. I sit at the library, spending hours on end studying for my next chemistry quiz, preparing for my next literature summative — but I can’t help but picture my old school campus completely empty, the city that had served as a home to me for six years a ghost town and the subway that I rode home every day now desolate. And if that weren’t bad enough, curiosity brought me to Reddit, where I saw videos of people suddenly collapsing while walking on the streets of China. These videos made me realize how fortunate I am to be able to just live my life normally, while people across the world have to worry about contracting a disease. The source of my guilt was the fact that I got lucky, and I feel like I don’t deserve this luck.
The Covid-19 outbreak in China is living proof that I have it easier than at least 110,000 diagnosed people in this world, and I may not be in control of that. However, what I am in control of is how I decide to respond. Am I going to be filled with constant guilt and beat myself up, continuously telling myself, “It should’ve been me still in China,” or am I going to tell myself to just be grateful and utilize the fact that I’m free to actually be productive and do something with my life?
The people in China aren’t able to do a lot of things because they are trapped in their houses. I have the opportunity to go to school — if I still do nothing with that opportunity, it makes me guilty that someone could be utilizing my opportunity much better than I am. This outbreak really affected me on a personal level because of the fact that I spent over a third of my life in the city of Shanghai, and it really made me reflect on how fortunate I am to be here in Cupertino. Yes, junior prom is cancelled, and every other trip I was looking forward is too, but I still feel that as long as it’s still relatively safe for me to get in my car and drive to Panera Bread to get some work done, I’ll be happy knowing that I’m living my life to the fullest.
I had been living in a bubble for the past two years, and the Covid-19 popped it. I’ve always had such a narrow mind and focused on little things, and now is the time that I stop and appreciate everything for a moment.
Over the past two years, I felt so disconnected from all my friends and family back in China, but recently, with this outbreak, I’ve felt more connected to them than I’ve before. I don’t plan on starting to train to become a U.N. investigator or the hero of a zombie apocalypse movie, but I do know that I can’t continue living in a bubble. So, in a way, thank you coronavirus, thank you for being the needle that popped my bubble, and thank you for making me remember what really matters in life.
Due to the sheer amount of coverage about COVID-19 and the ease at which misinformation can spread, many people may have inaccurate or outdated information regarding the outbreak. We went out and interviewed students to see what they really knew about the center of March 2020’s hysteria.