While the Chinese New Year brought celebration, it also brought uncertainty as a new strand of Coronavirus infected people throughout Wuhan, China.
On December 31st, the first case of a novel coronavirus was reported in China. Then, the first case in Chicago was discovered the last week of January. People all over the world took notice and wondered what they could do and if they should be concerned about an outbreak in their own cities. As of February 11th, the World Health Organization officially named this virus COVID-19. (For current numbers and stats on how many have been infected visit the Coronavirus Disease Outbreak page on the World Health Organization’s web site.) While people all over the globe are working hard to stop the spread of this disease, I wondered how the virus has impacted the Chinese communities living in the U.S. I interviewed Laura Johnson*, who works with international students as her ministry, about the current situation in Chicago. Part of her job involves bringing Chinese international students together for outings and group studies. Here is her take on it:
“The last week of January was really bad here as well as in China. That was when the news about the virus really became public and Wuhan, the main city that’s affected, went into lock down. A couple days later the first case in the U.S. was discovered, and then the first case in Chicago.
There has been general panic in the Chinese community here in Chicago just as much as in China. The WeChat (a popular Chinese social media platform similar to Facebook) news waves just went crazy and people were sharing news and talking all the time!
That weekend was Chinese New Year, when there are lots of activities hosted by the City and by Chinese cultural groups, especially Chinese churches and fellowship groups. It’s a great time for outreach and meeting new students. But any group meeting was canceled that weekend. So it was a very quiet New Year, both here in Chicago and in China, as people were warned not to get together with large groups of people.”
Laura Johnson spoke on some of the panic she has witnessed as she tried to host events and gather students together. “One student called me and expressed concern about holding a Bible study at my house because it is an enclosed space. This shows a bit of the irrationality when panic like this strikes, because she said it might be better to meet in the student union instead. And I’m thinking ‘In my house, there are six people, we know where they are from, none of them have been in China for several months, and it’s a space that I can clean. In the Student Union, thousands of students are walking through with germs from who-knows-where.’
Some students, however, were a little less informed. Our first [Bible study] meeting was right after the first case in Chicago was discovered. And the students arrived like normal, very glad to be back. Then we discovered that one of the student’s roommates is from the province at the center of the outbreak, and he had just returned from there a couple days before. It was only when we were talking about it in the Bible study that everyone went “Oh, oh. Maybe this is, you know, concerning.”
There’s been different reactions from people in Chicago and in China, some being more cautious than others. While it seems most people have remained calm, there is still some panic. The most cautious reaction that I heard of being from one of Laura Johnson’s friends, Cindy*.
“Her mother-in-law arrived in the U.S. in the first week of January. Her mother-in-law is from Wuhan, the city which is at the core of the virus. The rest of the family is still there in lock down. I can’t tell if it’s fear or caution, or because she talks to family, which are in the most high-risk parts, so she’s more cautious than most. She won’t let me go over to her house to visit. She took her kids out of daycare and they are still out. They’ve been out of school for 3 weeks. She is thinking of keeping them out until the end of February.”
But this is by far the most extreme reaction Laura has seen in Chicago. She says that: “By now in Chicago, most people have calmed down because there have not been any new cases for a couple weeks. It has been a couple weeks since Chinese New Year and almost three weeks since most flights were cancelled. So we know the chances of catching the virus in Chicago are very very low.”
But Chinese groups are still wary of meeting in large groups. Most people who recently arrived back from China have self quarantined themselves for 14 days after their homecoming, which seems to be the standard response at this point.
Laura also commented on the issue of surgical face masks. You probably heard that within a few days of the COVID-19 news breaking, the entire U.S. online system was sold out of face masks! The culture of when it is necessary to wear a face mask is very different in the U.S. versus China, according to Laura:
“People in the US freaked out and my guess is that many were buying masks and sending them to China. So online stocks disappeared within a few days and stores in Chicago also sold out. People who still wanted masks were contacting people who lived in rural areas to ask for more.
That first weekend of Chinese New Year I think most Chinese students went out wearing a mask if they travelled on any public transportation and yes, they had interesting reactions from the Americans on the CTA. My friends Logan* and Ava* went to church on Sunday wearing a mask and they were the only ones in their church wearing masks. They said that on the subway everyone moved far away from them when they saw the masks. This is because the culture about wearing masks is very different. In the U.S., people will usually only wear a mask if they are sick to prevent spreading their germs. Or if they are in the hospital. But in China people wear masks to avoid getting sick. So in China right now people won’t go out without masks, but of course there’s a huge shortage of masks.”
So what is it like back in China? Most of these Chinese students either know somebody or are related to someone who has been affected by the virus.
“Now, as I said most people in Chicago have calmed down, but the situation in China weighs heavily on everyone’s minds and hearts. Everyone is watching and reading the news regularly, and very worried about their families and friends back home. Some are less worried than others, especially if their family lives in an area that is not as strongly affected. But everyone is just weeping for the people in Wuhan because the news about the situation there is just devastating.
You have seen on the news the different measures and increasing lockdowns in an attempt to keep it from spreading anymore. The last three weeks everyone has been indoors. The whole country has been like a ghost town. Every housing complex has pretty strict rules; no one comes in and they only let people out once or twice a week. My former roommate’s complex has organized for fruit and vegetable sellers to come to the complex once or twice a week, so they don’t even have to go out to buy food. People are bored, but at least provided for in most places. But they worry how long the virus will last and what the final toll will be, on their families and the nation.”
Fear, anger, and sadness have swept through China and across our own nation these past two months. While panic seems to have waned, the world is cautiously waiting and watching for updates, hoping this epidemic subsides soon.
*All names were changed for privacy concerns