By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
Looking at the screen, she saw a bridge swoop away as the camera tilted upwards. Then the alarms sounded. The entire city ground to a halt. Taxi drivers honked horns. Doctors stood in a row, heads bowed.
“Today is Tomb Sweeping Day in China,” said Qiong Chen.
The day of mourning, on April 4, marked the end of the first period of isolation endured by city dwellers in Wuhan, where she is from. The next day, her mother walked out on the street wearing a mask Chen had provided her. Now Chen is trying to get masks to the Seattle area.
After raising nearly a million dollars since January, she coordinated relief efforts first for Wuhan and the province of Hubei, buying supplies in China with donations from Chinese American groups here. Now she is bringing medical supplies here.
As of press time, Chinese American groups in the Seattle area had donated and arranged for the delivery of almost a quarter of a million masks to hospitals and other health care facilities around the region. Normally divided and fractious, nearly every Chinese American group in the Seattle area has joined in the effort, bringing the total to over 65 organizations participating.
“This is a historic moment,” said Chen. “The Japanese are culturally known for uniting in common efforts, but not the Chinese.”
Trying to get help from local officials
No one has labored harder than Chen, a former Microsoft software engineer and president of an educational nonprofit.
Working around the clock for months, sleeping for short stretches in the afternoon so she can communicate with China, she has used her networking with dozens of factories and medical distributors there to gain access to shipments of hundreds of thousands of masks.
But getting them here has been a problem. From the beginning, she has needed the approval of a local government agency to get them through customs.
Adding to her difficulties, as the crisis worsened, the Chinese government began purchasing an increasing amount of masks for its national stockpile.
Chen soon found it would take an official from Washington state to step in and make a formal request to either a local Chinese government or the consulate in San Francisco. As of press time, she was negotiating for another shipment, this time of 20,000 KN95 masks. Chen—as she has done at least a dozen times over the past few months—is arranging with an agent in China to approach the factory on her behalf.
In this case, she is in discussions with the office of Everett Mayor Cassie Franklin to arrange for shipping and passage of the masks through customs.
Her group has previously split up large shipments of masks and other protective gear into smaller shipments to get them past customs and delivered to individuals’ homes.
One such shipment of 30,000 of the most needed N95 masks had to be divided up into 10 separate packages. Earlier shipments, sent months earlier from spots all over China, have gone missing, with USPS tracking numbers going blank.
Meanwhile, local governments and agencies have seemed slow to respond to opportunities offered by this group of mostly scientists, software developers, and engineers who work for companies such as Amazon, Google, Microsoft, and the Gates Foundation.
Last month, the Joint Information Center at Camp Murray told Chen it was unable to help her group move medical supplies through customs. The offices of other leaders have failed even to answer the phone, or sent back form letters.
Contacted more recently, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office responded by introducing Chen to the Washington China Relations Council, which is still working with Chen.
Desperate appeals for help
In the meantime, nearly every leading hospital in the greater Seattle area has reached out to the Chinese American community for help getting masks.
Organizers have been fervently collecting masks from their community and delivering them to hospitals. Most have come from shipments that family and friends had already shipped over to keep them safe during the outbreak.
“We are in dire need of N95 masks, gloves, gowns,” wrote one administrator of an assisted living community.
“We have tried and exhausted all our options to source protective equipment for our workers, but haven’t gotten anything…Please, please help us,” wrote the woman.
Mahlon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.