What we’ve missed in the Coronavirus outbreak

As the number of people infected with the coronavirus now exceed the thousands, Jing Xia has taken a step back from the statistics to report the personal stories of those affected by the virus.

“I couldn’t remember how many days have passed since I started the fund raising,” Chen said. “Too many things happened.” Hearing that, I was silent for a few seconds before continuing the interview with him. Against the background of mainstream media criticising the Chinese government and analysing statistics, I feel a strong urge to tell the stories untold and shed light on individuals overlooked by the grand narrative of the coronavirus. This article is only a tiny bit of the episodes of the last few weeks that I, and millions of Chinese people, have experienced.  

This Chinese New Year will be the most heartbreaking ever. I joined the group chat via the QR code shared by Chen in the Essex Students WeChat group. Compared to the 300 plus members of Chinese Students in UK Fundraising Team, Chen’s group was fewer than 30. Chen has studied an MA and Doctorate degree in Computer Science and Finance in the CSEE department since 2013. If the coronavirus didn’t happen, he would already have flown back to UK and attempted his doctor degree’s dissertation defence.   

Undergrounds with a grim atmosphere in Shanghai before quarantine was imposed. Image taken by Shaoyi Deng.

Chen was the manager of the group chat. Every day he posted the receipt of the face masks, coveralls, gloves and googles he bought as an informal bookkeeping. At the end of the fundraising, he sent an Excel file with all donors’ names and transactions recorded. The total amount of the money raised was 6800 RMB (near £800) and all the resources were donated to two hospitals in Ezhou and Guangshui City of the Hubei Province. This was on the fourth day since Chen built the group on New Year’s Eve. 

Being asked why he started the fundraising, he thought for a while and said; “Wuhan was locked down. I felt things weren’t right. At that point no case was identified in my hometown. Meanwhile, some large hospitals in Wuhan bypassed the local healthcare bureaus and directly asked for social donations through Weibo. I felt it must be in great shortage. One of my friends is a supplier of labour protection appliances, so I told him to keep the last few boxes of masks and googles. I dialled the Wuhan Union Hospital and was told our resources didn’t meet the medical criteria. But I thought smaller hospitals in other cities outside Wuhan may need them and I saw some pharmacies still had very few stocks, so I started the fundraising.” 

Chen was about to send the parcels full of medical resources. On the box it says ‘Donated by Alumni of University of Essex’. Image taken by Chen Chen.

Chen told me he went to every pharmacy store in his hometown and bought every bit of the medical products. In most cases, the pharmacies refused to sell, and Chen was even considered to be among those who stock up the masks to resell at a ridiculously higher price. It took Chen one day to hunt for resources, pack and send the parcels to the hospital he contacted. Many logistic companies have already stopped services except SF Express and, in order to leverage the efficiency, only medical resources could be delivered to Wuhan.  

Though it was two or three days after person-to-person transmission was confirmed, people immediately felt the shortage of masks, not to mention the hospitals receiving hundreds of patients every day. From the beginning of fundraising, money wasn’t the problem for Chen; surprisingly, most people who joined Chen’s group didn’t know him at all but still trusted him without any concern. “It was manageable in the small group chat, but in the large one people still are still cautious,” Chen said.  

Chen was right. One case in North America was that a group of students bought the masks worth £6,000 from a so-called trusted supplier but received a batch of paper-like masks. Another friend of mine bought some coveralls online but was asked to transfer the money to a personal account. More often, it’s not about fraud. How the money is utilized and how to deal with the balance is another question that needs to be asked. A member of the UK Zhejiang Association told me they bought 13,000 masks from a supplier but couldn’t get the certificates approving the quality and now they having difficulty finding hospitals to take the masks.  

A courier of SF express riding on the lonely street. Far away only one person was spotted. Red lanterns hanging on the street lights made the this new year even more desolate. Image taken by Mengyuan Ou.

As the national vacation was extended, the productivity of medical equipment was largely restricted, and more and more people started to eye resources from overseas. According to the report two days ago by the China General Administration of Customs, 56 million masks were imported by China. Fast track clearance offered by customs is one reason why there was such a scale of trade within the short period of time. Yet, unlike the normal cross-border trade shipped by cargos and undertaken by companies, it is largely made by individuals who facilitated the purchasing, quality check, logistics, custom clearance, and matchmaking with hospitals and charities. Some are overseas students who collect available resources day and night, some are tourists who helped literally carry the resources back to China, and others are Chinese migrants with well-established business who provide private airfreight services for free. No one asks for any return and it’s just something a citizen with the national identity and a person with humanity will do.  

At the same time, xenophobia and discrimination have spread in Europe as more infected cases are diagnosed and scarcity has been expanded globally. An Essex Chinese student told me they experienced discrimination from a white man on campus. The latter called; “fuck off, you have the Chinese virus.” Ironically, she’s one of the members at Chen’s fundraising team. I contacted her and she told me she had been with a few other Chinese students and encountered the man inside the Tory Rich Building. They didn’t know each other and had no connection. I helped her report the issue and I’m waiting for more follow-ups. More cases of Chinese students being physically and mentally attacked have been reported in Germany, France and Italy, regardless of whether they were wearing a mask or not.  

As I heard the news, I didn’t feel any surprise. If the Prime Minister of Denmark refused to apologize for the virus-starred red flag cartoon published by Jyllands-Posten newspaper and claimed it was freedom of speech, Chinese people should be able to ask for moral awareness. When Ebola broke out in Congo, no one contaminated her national flag with the Ebola virus. When the H1N1 pandemic broke out in the US and spread to other parts of the world in 2009, no one called it the ‘America virus’ and no one blamed it on American people. But now it is the novel coronavirus. Every one of us is making the best effort to contain the virus and to secure the world, but Chinese citizens are being attacked. If this is not double standards, and if it’s not against human rights regardless of ethnicity and nationality, then I have nothing to defend. In my opinion, I don’t see freedom of speech, only freedom of discriminating against China. 

Those who hold the banner of freedom of speech high have never truly listened to the people unheard. You have never witnessed the person who committed suicide because he couldn’t be hospitalized and had no more strength to go back home due to the suspension of public transportation. You have never seen the marks left by elastic bands on doctors’ faces because they have been wearing goggles too long. You never know if the families of the one you told to “fuck off” are suffering from the disease. You never know how many sleepless nights we have had because of the unsettled worries for our families and friends.   

A friend of mine living in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province. Now people hardly go out. Even having a walk out of the residential quarter needs permission. Image taken by Wanlu Chen.

Truly it’s a great challenge for the Chinese government and without any doubt, the rampant situation is an indication of the dysfunction of the local governments. Hundreds and thousands of patients are not able to be tested with diagnostic kits or be hospitalised because of the tremendous shortage of hospital beds. While the acute development of the epidemic and the exponential increase of patients does exceed the daily capacity of a hospital, it does imply the weakness in dealing with urgent public health events.  

More scandals have been revealed under the scrutiny of the public. The Red Cross Society in Wuhan has come under attack for their inefficiency and ineptitude in distributing masks and medical supplies. The donated supplies are not reaching those in need. Since the Red Cross Society in Hubei announced the logistical processes of donated medical supplies on the 29th January, the severely understocked Wuhan Union Hospital, one of the hospitals designated to admit patients exhibiting fever symptoms, has received a mere 3,000 masks. On the contrary, the Wuhan Ren’ai Hospital that specializes in gynecology surgery received 16,000 masks. It should also be noted that the Red Cross Society in Hubei has so far accumulated over 300 million RMB in donations but has only distributed over 50 million. 

The confidence as a rising nation built by the economic take-off has collapsed. Yet I’ve also seen the collective strength of everyone. The lock down of Wuhan and many other cities scattered the geographical space but have been connected by delivery couriers; the empathy has been exploited but then refueled by those who work relentlessly at hospitals; the concern has remained considerable among public but then was reduced with the medical breakthrough made by researchers; the homes quarantined have isolated people but then been bridged by the reports from the journalists at the frontline. As expected, the mainstream media is now circulating the time-lapse footage of Huoshenshan Hospital being built within 10 days, calling it the ‘Chinese miracle’. But what the camera didn’t capture was the tears and sweat of every engineer and construction worker. Likewise, the statistics will never be able to depict the desperation and the sorrow of helplessly seeing beloved ones pass away.  

Coronavirus seems to make us feel exiled to isolated islands and deprives one’s sense of security and dignity to merely a piece of mask. But people with kindness remain kind regardless of circumstances and reach out to those in a less fortunate situation. In my eyes, I see the people and the nation of the people.  


Feature image taken by Shaoyi Deng.

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