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Chinese Americans' Connections With China Are Not the Threats; They Are American Assets, Especially During Covid-19

Buried by the news cycles are stories of how Chinese-American doctors, researchers, and community members are standing on the frontline in America’s fight against Covid-19. 

The role of Chinese-American medical professionals was particularly worth noting in their early attempts to ready their communities for the invasion by the virus. (Photo: Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images)

The role of Chinese-American medical professionals was particularly worth noting in their early attempts to ready their communities for the invasion by the virus. (Photo: Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images)

As America is severely tested by Covid-19, whose outbreak originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan, blaming the toll of Covid-19 on China has been a popular strategy, as Donald Trump’s “Chinese virus” and recently leaked Republic Party Strategic Memo.  Under the hostile environment, any associations with China could be viewed as a threat, as there have been some 1,500 attacks on Chinese residents in America in the last month amid FBI warning of rising hate crime against Asian Americans.

The former Democratic presidential primary candidate Andrew Yang admitted of feeling “ashamed” being an Asian. Yet, buried by the news cycles are stories of how Chinese-American doctors, researchers, and community members are standing on the frontline in America’s fight against Covid-19.  For this, they have deployed to the extent possible their transnational social networks, bilingual knowledge, and access to social media with China as their most potent weapon.  Chinese-Americans have strong ties in China through family, friends, educational experiences, business and professional networks, and social media access. Such ties have in recent years invited suspicion and even criminalization as FBI director Christopher Wray once described China as a whole-of-society-threat, and now they are demonized as the conduit of the dreadful disease.  Yet, it is precisely these ties that have become critical assets in Chinese American’s fight against Covid-19. 

The role of Chinese-American medical professionals was particularly worth noting in their early attempts to ready their communities for the invasion by the virus. When the earliest  American Covid-19  patient landed in a Seattle clinic on Jan 19, infectious specialist Helen Chu immediately saw the need for monitoring community transmission.  She repeatedly sought the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) permission to repurpose the flu samples she had collected to check for Covid-19. Unfortunately, her effort was stalled by the FDA. When she finally decided to test without permission in late February, she was the first to discover evidence of community spread in the United States.  

Dr. Jian Zhang, the chief executive of San Francisco’s Chinese Hospital immediately sprang to action after Wuhan lockdown on Jan. 23 to prepare her hospital and mobilized all major San Francisco Chinatown institutions to introduce measures to prevent large scale community transmission.  Her early efforts paid off. By mid-April, that San Francisco neighborhood despite its many connections to China, cramped living conditions, and an elderly population, has had few cases and now treats Covid-19 patients from elsewhere in the city.  When New Jersey’s first Covid-19 patient Dr. Cai, a physician’s assistant, became seriously ill in a case that mystified  American doctors,  his Chinese-American medical friends mobilized  American and Chinese medical networks to seek treatment ideas from experienced doctors in China. This ultimately saved his life. 

In the age of jet travel and globalization, it is nearly impossible for any single country to contain such a stealthy novel virus within its border even though we know far more about Covid-19 than when it first surfaced in Wuhan.

The early actions of those Chinese-American doctors stemmed from their attention to the Wuhan--the first epi-center of the Covid-19 outbreak, access to bilingual information sources, and an intimate understanding of the many personal links between China and the United States.  They recognized earlier than most of their American colleagues the likely invasion of this virus and the massive mobilization needed to prepare America.  The Alliance of Chinese-American Physicians organized the Covid-19 lecture by Wuhan doctors on January 26, and their members have been giving lectures and writing articles to educate their local communities of the virus.  The organization sent a letter with 237 physician signatures to the director of National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease Anthony Fauci and Secretary of Health and Human Service Alex Azar on to suggest ways to minimize community transmission at primary care clinic on March 10, five days before the first lockdown in the United States

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As the Covid-19 threatened American hospitals, Chinese-Americans also helped connect American medical institutions to those on the frontline in China.   At Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Chinese doctors from Zhejiang and Wuhan conference with over  80 US doctors on Covid-19 treatment.  Likewise, Temple university hospital has maintained contact with Wuhan hospitals for months and credits doctors there for such important ideas measures as rationalizing hospital layouts to deal with patient surges.  Zhong Nanshan, the leading Chinese epidemiologist established collaboration with Harvard Medical School through Chinese-American connections.   Not to be missed are some of the most trafficked Covid-19 information sites such as the Johns Hopkins University which received a billion hits a day and another one 1point 3acers  which received 170 million hits by late April are both first created and maintained by Chinese American graduate students and engineers. 

The broader Chinese-American community has seen mass mobilization to donate Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) for American frontline medical workers.  Having seen desperate calls came from Wuhan doctors who begged for more PPE a month or two earlier, it is unbearable to see that repeats in America.  China is the world’s largest manufacturer of PPE, but the disruption of the shipping system, constantly changing regulations, the incompatible international standard, and a surging global demand had crippled the logistics systems and created mounting difficulties PPE shipment.  Undaunted, Chinese-Americans mobilized their personal networks, pulling all-nighters to overcome recurring hurdles to get PPE delivered to those in need. 

In my rural home region of the Hudson Valley, local Chinese organization (the Mid-Hudson Chinese Community Organization) purchase PPE from China for local hospitals, nursing homes, supermarkets, and hospice organizations, and also helped to direct equipment donated by other Chinese-American or Chinese organizations to New York City and our local hospitals.  Vassar College also received PPE donations from parents of its Chinese students.   None of the shipments were possible without the urgent and tedious work of the friends on the China side.  Frequently they had to divide large shipments into small packages to pass customs, conduct complicated screening for product quality, and ensure reliable delivery.  

Some might claim that Chinese-Americans mounted extra efforts because they feel guilty as the virus originated in Wuhan. This could not be further from the truth.  In the age of jet travel and globalization, it is nearly impossible for any single country to contain such a stealthy novel virus within its border even though we know far more about Covid-19 than when it first surfaced in Wuhan. Chinese-Americans feel a stronger sense of urgency because they had been deeply affected by the trauma of Wuhan and understand the daunting challenges longer than anyone else. The fact that China is the global center of PPE manufacturing also made it possible for Chinese-Americans to mobilize personal networks to overcome obstacles caused by an extraordinary period of shipping disruption.

Against the tide of political hostility between the US and China and racism against Chinese Americans, we need to acknowledge that the ties with China embodied by Chinese Americans are not threats, but critical assets in Americans’ fight of Covid-19. 

Yu Zhou

Yu Zhou is a Professor of Geography at Vassar College.

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