“Unfortunately, anytime people are scared for their health and the health of their families, they try to find somebody to blame. They try to separate us vs. them,” said Lauren Sucher-O’Grady, an emergency physician at Mercy Hospital.
In three months, the coronavirus has incited global chaos, with infections doubling every four days and Wuhan left under government lockdown. Despite the World Health Organization (WHO) announcing that a vaccine could be developed in 18 months, the mass commotion surrounding coronavirus has continued to ensue in the present.
The 2019 Novel Coronavirus, officially titled COVID-19, is a newly mutated strain of coronavirus that has caused an outbreak of respiratory illness.
“Coronavirus is an extremely common viral illness that causes the common cold. There are several strains of it that circulate at all times, and if you’ve ever had a cold, which everyone has, you’ve had coronavirus,” said Sucher-O’Grady. “Every now and again, any of these strains of virus can mutate… every time they divide and replicate, there is an opportunity for error.”
COVID-19 is a strain that has mutated with an error, but survived rather than typically dying off, which Sucher-O’Grady says allows the virus to become more virulent and dangerous to humans or some animals.
While COVID-19 is very infectious, it is still a virus like the flu, which means that the principal mode of transmission is by respiratory droplets, which could be produced by sneezing and coughing. Similar to the SARS outbreak back in 2003, bats have been commonly believed to be the original host for the virus. However, new studies suspect pangolins to be the intermediate host between bats and humans.
AP Biology teacher, Adam Bergeron, weighs in on the biology aspect behind the transmission.
“[A pangolin is] a mammal that, in my understanding and what [expert researchers] think has happened, served as a host for both a bat and maybe another bird. If you imagine that there was a bat virus and a bird virus, and this pangolin somehow came in contact with both of those types of viruses, those two types of viruses infected the pangolin…[and it] allowed for the viral genetic information to swap and generate a new virus that could then make its transition into humans,” said Bergeron.
On Feb. 7, a report from Xinhua News Agency stated that researchers at South China Agricultural University discovered a strand of virus in pangolins that is 99% similar to COVID-19. While this finding is not definitive, it suggests that the virus was not transmitted from bats to humans by consumption.
Coronavirus remains most prominent in the nation where the virus was first identified, China, leading to the association of coronavirus as a ‘Chinese disease’ and widespread stigma surrounding the immigrant Asian community. Sucher-O’Grady accounts this to the defense system that some individuals immediately resort to.
“[People] try to come up with reasons to psychologically protect themselves. In this case, I think they’re trying to blame the virus on China for Chinese people,” said Sucher-O’Grady.
Through her career in the medical field, she has been firsthand exposed to the mayhem prompted by the coronavirus scare. “You’ve got this subset of people who think if they’ve reacted with what they presume to be a Chinese person or any Asian person, that they are at risk of contracting this virus. This virus is not in Asian people… and so it doesn’t make much sense. Being around Asian people is obviously not going to give you this cold,” Sucher-O’Grady said.
Sucher-O’Grady also listed instances of patients visiting the hospital and requesting tests for coronavirus, despite not exhibiting symptoms, simply due to the worry about contracting the virus.
Unfortunately, the coronavirus panic is not only prevalent in the form of unwarranted fear of contraction, the Chinese community, and more broadly the Asian community, has been painted as the link for this disease. “I think probably the silliest things we’ve heard are people thinking if they go to a Chinese food restaurant, they will get coronavirus, which is obviously not true. I heard [a professor] talking about being worried about Asian kids in her class at a college or university. She was worried that the Asian kids in her class were going to be spreading this virus and that they should be tested,” recalls Sucher-O’Grady.
CHS Chinese language teacher, Hongling Zhang, feels dismayed by the xenophobia against those of Chinese descent since the outbreak of coronavirus.
“I don’t think it’s okay to do that, even though I understand that you feel afraid and you fear the unknown. Coronavirus is such a new virus and nobody knows [about it], so I think it’s the fear of the unknown. [But when] someone sees a face that looks Asian and you become afraid, I think that’s irrational,” said Zhang.
In the current climate of China, residents are learning to adapt to the strict regulations implemented by the government. Former CHS student Zilu Pang, now living in Wuhan, China, has not left his apartment since the government closed down the city on January 23, 2020. The situation in Wuhan quickly escalated from regulation to strict lockdown. Initially, police officers tested residents’ temperatures at the border using thermometers, and only those with normal body temperatures were allowed to enter and exit the city. After a few days, however, Wuhan was completely quaranteened. No one was allowed to cross the city border, healthy or sick.
“The panic quickly heightened in the early days of the lockdown,” Pang said*. “Resources were scarce and supermarkets were robbed clear in hours.”
As February rolled forward, even stepping into the streets proved difficult. The only vehicles that still drive on the streets are ambulances and emergency vehicles. People who must be outside are fully protected by masks, and in some cases, goggles and protective suits. Health professionals designed and placed flyers in every corner educating residents on how coronavirus is spread and how to properly wear protective gears. Additionally, Wuhan implemented the practice to spray disinfection water twice daily city-wide since Feb. 9.
Pang suggested that the most effective way to prevent the virus from entering the body is to stay in the house and wash hands often, each time for at least 30 seconds.
“Right now, it’s not even a matter of whether we want to go outside,” Pang said. “In fact, every community assigns its residents a pass, which limits the amount of times one can leave apartment.”
To accommodate this issue, many stores offer grocery deliveries that can allow people to order groceries online and be sent in front of their steps.
“It’s still hard to buy anything, though,” Pang said. “It only takes 10 seconds for fresh groceries to sell out. Then we wait, again, for 10 pm tomorrow when the online stores restock.”
Fortunately, situations have grown more stable since January. Medical professionals from around the country volunteered to support Wuhan, and the Chinese government sent the People’s Liberation Army to help with the medical staff and construct new buildings. Two hospitals were assembled in record time in Wuhan to exclusively treat patients who were diagnosed with COVID-19. One of them, named Huoshenshan Hospital, was constructed in about 10 days and provides 1,000 beds; the other one, Leishenshan Hospital, finished construction six days after Huoshenshan Hospital and provides 1,600 beds.
At home, residents are starting to accommodate their new lifestyle. Teachers now instruct their classes online in live classrooms, and schools designed strict daily schedules for students to follow at home. Parents, too, joined in the effort of keeping their children on task.
“Right now, most of us don’t feel panicked anymore. Instead, we feel that we are safe as long as we follow the government’s orders,” Pang said. “Funnily enough, no one has ever dreamed that we would be one day looking forward to going to school. But after staying at home for so long, any fresh air is welcomed.”
The parallels between how citizens are handling the situation in Wuhan and the United States further show that much of the panic surrounding coronavirus in the United States is only driven by fear. Zhang expresses sentiments of disappointment over the way coronavirus has established Wuhan globally.
“Wuhan became well known to the world [because of the coronavirus outbreak]. I have heard [my friend in Wuhan] talk about being ashamed to be known to the world in this way. People learned about Wuhan because of the coronavirus, and they really don’t want that. It’s a sad situation,” Zhang said.
As Zhang has multiple family members and friends in Wuhan, she feels disheartened at how the once vibrant city she visited last summer has rapidly turned into a lockdown zone.
“I’m very concerned. Even after months, I still can’t believe that it’s happening. It’s just very unbelievable. I still feel very sad.”