COVID-19, a respiratory disease that first appeared in Wuhan, China in late December of last year, has already claimed more than 3,000 lives globally and affected millions more.
Last Wednesday in Annenberg Hall, Chinatown Health Initiative, an on-campus student group that aims to promote healthcare access, hosted a town hall meeting to share more information with the Northwestern student body. The group invited experts in public health, medicine and Asian American studies and a New York Times journalist to discuss the impact of COVID-19 outbreak with a group of students.
Robert Murphy, the director of global health institute at Northwestern's Feinberg School of Medicine, highlighted the potential of COVID-19 to cause more deaths. Citing a Harvard epidemiologist, Murphy said 40% to 70% of the world’s population would get infected. From early research, he said the new coronavirus has a mortality rate of 2%, lower than that of similar diseases like the SARS and MERS, but much higher than the mortality rate of the flu, which is about .1%.
According to Murphy, the rising number of cases in Italy, South Korea, Japan and Singapore is more worrisome.
“They're important because the virus is getting out of control in all four of those countries and those countries have very good public health systems,” Murphy said. “This is really bad.”
Karla Satchell, a microbiologist and professor at Feinberg, offered her view on how the scientific community is quickly responding to the outbreak.
Satchell said a large number of scientists immediately shifted from their current projects to finding solutions for the new coronavirus.
“And that’s what we did at our center at Northwestern,” Satchell said. “We were really lucky in our center because we actually had a completely active unit that was studying SARS and SARS-like viruses.”
Because of the similarity between SARS and COVID-19, scientists are looking to apply their knowledge with SARS to combat the largely mysterious new coronavirus.
Satchell was also glad that scientists are now able to work at “an unprecedented pace” since the waiting period in each step of the research is dramatically shortened. Compared with the two-year waiting period for vaccines and drugs in the past, Satchell said that the new ones might only take six to nine months.
As COVID-19 spread from China to more than 60 countries and every continent except Antarctica, sinophobic sentiments accompanied it as well. Jason Chang, director of the Asian and Asian American Studies Institute at the University of Connecticut, joined the panel through Skype to discuss the political and societal ramifications of the disease.
Feeling unprepared to address the political, historical and cultural dimensions of the outbreak, Chang created a shared document, titled “Treating Yellow Peril,” to gather resources from all over the world. A month later, the document is now 21 pages long and has links to news articles in five languages, available for anyone wishes to promote racial justice.
“There’s a set of professors who are using it in one of their classes to teach about the social forces that shape epidemiology,” Chang said.
Chang thinks the anti-Chinese sentiments accompanying the outbreak is a reflection of both the past and the present. He said the “Sick Asians” narrative has always served American and European imperialist agenda and evokes xenophobic policies such as the Chinese Exclusion Act. He also said that in today’s political environment, the racism attack Asians face can be linked to the global wave of rising nationalist sentiments, evidenced by the triumph of political leaders in countries like India, Britain and Brazil.
Chang also said the current situation should be a “gut check” for Asian American activism, which sometimes live comfortably under the umbrella of the model minority myth and “the glow of ‘Crazy Rich Asians’.”
“Asian Americans need to stick with other minorities who are being persecuted,” Chang said. “For activism to be successful, it can’t be a single-minded, narrow, ethnically-defined, officially defined issue. This is an opportunity to build coalitions.”
Muyi Xiao, a journalist at the New York Times, originally from Wuhan, also spoke to the audience from New York on her experience reporting the COVID-19 outbreak, including a video segment on how Chinese citizens are fighting against state censorship amid the outbreak.
The Chinese government’s censorship has created difficulties for journalists and the public alike in gathering needed information. Sometimes, Xiao and her colleagues have to be creative: they created a channel on Telegram, a social media platform known for its security and privacy features to find censored information from Wuhan.
Xiao and many other Chinese journalists working for U.S. news agencies also struggle with the industry-wide media bias against China. Xiao said they are sometimes challenged by American colleagues and people back home alike, which requires extra effort to preserve truth.
Despite hardships, Xiao is embracing her role in reporting the COVID-19 outbreak.
“As someone who is from Wuhan, it is very hard to not spend all my time to stay tuned because I’m worried about my family and friends,” Xiao said, “this gives me an excuse to keep following the news.”
Students such as Weinberg sophomore Larry Wang appreciated hearing from a diverse group of speakers.
“It’s a very holistic view on a problem that dives a lot deeper than just the immediate medical science aspect,” the Seattle native said.
At the end of the event, Weinberg sophomore Anny Yang was ready to call her father, whose parents are in Wuhan. The Naperville, Illinois native said she was unaware of the seriousness of the outbreak because it wasn’t on her mind.
“This really made me think a little bit harder,” Yang said. “Maybe we should all be learning a little bit more than just the top headline.”