By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
They were not heroes. They were simply panicked. But in the end, they prevented the deaths of many.
Knowing that their parents were locked in their homes due to COVID-19, hearing about the thousands dying, the Chinese American community in Washington state converted their panicked emotions into action. They used every connection they had in China to get over a million masks to Washington state quickly and efficiently. They flooded local hospitals with supplies and money. And in the end, they helped turn the state from the epicenter of the contagion into one of the safest areas in the country.
“This was in direct result of the Chinese community being the first to step up in our state to assist the medical frontline staff, physicians, and nurses, as well as the community in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Jennifer Hoyord, who coordinates major donations for EvergreenHealth.
United Chinese Americans of Washington State (UCAWA), the local chapter of a national nonprofit, united 65 Chinese American groups, forming a coalition with a network that reached into multiple provinces of China and obtained supplies that would otherwise have been unobtainable.
“Americans have no idea the panic the Chinese people felt and still feel,” said Sean Shi, vice president of UCAWA.
Volunteers worked around the clock to fundraise and coordinate the acquisition, shipping, and distribution of masks and other personal protective equipment for many of the area’s hospitals and retirement centers.
Shi, who was the founder and first president of the Seattle Suzhou Fellow Association, found friends and acquaintances in his home province that were willing and eager to donate 20,000 masks. Then he worked his connections further and got both the municipal and provincial government to donate 2,000 more each—at a time when Chinese-U.S. relations were at a nadir.
Linhui Hao, a board member of the Mercer Island Chinese Association, studied virology in Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak in China. After receiving a Ph.D. in Biology from Ohio State, and moving to Seattle, she converted her scientific training into actuarial skills and stayed up every night, all night, for a month to tabulate and record contributions from UCAWA’s fundraising drive.
“I would put my kids to bed at 10:00, then stay up until the morning,” she said. “But I was used to it, as a scientist I used to do research like that.”
The UCA was new, and they needed to earn the trust of the community, she said.
“I couldn’t make a single mistake. I checked and rechecked all the numbers and finally posted them each night,” she said.
In their first push, they raised $140,000, presenting it quickly and efficiently to Evergreen Hospital, which was the first and hardest hit hospital in the state.
With the $10,000 more they raised subsequently, they have bought more supplies for retirement communities and other hospitals.
Winston Lee, the president of UCAWA, helped oversee much of the efforts.
The UCAWA worked with the Gates Foundation to host a conference, inviting leading Chinese and American scientists and doctors to share their experiences and come up with an understanding of their different approaches to the pandemic and what they could learn from each other.
“As local and national governments prepare to relax social distancing and return people’s lives to a new normal while the virus still spreads and with no vaccine, what must be done to minimize rebound and safeguard public health?” This was the question they considered.
Some of the projects were put on hold. The UCAWA had earlier started working with the Bellevue School District (BSD) to bring mental health counselors from Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard as advisers. The specialists were Chinese and Chinese Americans psychiatrists with a deep appreciation for the particularities of challenges facing Chinese American students.
They had planned to expand efforts to other school districts when the pandemic hit.
Still, UCAWA has organized a webinar to be held on June 13 to address the issue of racism in mental health for students and teachers in the BSD, said Lee.
Meanwhile, UCAWA leaders jumped in to help in any way they could, driven by panic, worried that their new home would follow the fate of their old one.
Lee delivered boxes of masks to the Ronald McDonald charity. UCA members assembled stacks of boxes of supplies outside the Bellevue City Hall so that representatives from eight area hospital groups could come and retrieve them safely. And they donated safety equipment, hand sanitizer, and other supplies to the local police.
UCAWA joined with leaders from the Korean American, Japanese American, and Jewish communities to talk with candidates for congress about racism, Lee said.
But their frenzied efforts led them to overlook the consequences of their own health.
Shi drove out daily to the airport to meet with pilots on the last flights coming in from China. They had brought the desperately needed medical supplies. But the UCA needed the captains themselves to “give the nod” in order for the supplies to be unloaded.
That meant Shi was talking to a different pilot every day in close proximity.
“I ended up having a cough for two months,” he said.
Every time he coughed, he worried about having the infection. But he kept on, eventually helping to bring in many of the million masks that UCAWA would distribute.
Lee showed up for an interview with half his face swollen. He had neglected a tooth while he worked frantically, holding meetings with the other groups all day, coordinating efforts. Finally, he had to have the tooth pulled.
“It hurts,” he said.
Hao, the virologist, started coughing halfway through her efforts as well. But a doctor friend told her it was unlikely she had the virus.
“The feeling you’d have from having the virus compared to a common cold is totally different,” he told her. She realized it was allergies.
In the end, EvergreenHealth Foundation honored them by naming part of their new Intensive Care Unit after them. Two consultation rooms will be emblazoned with the title, “Chinese Community Alliance Physician Quiet Consult Rooms.”
“We, at EvergreenHealth, would not be in the position we are in without their assistance. EvergreenHealth felt that we owe a great debt of gratitude toward the Chinese community and this naming was our way of showing our appreciation in perpetuity,” Hoyord stated in an email.
But the Chinese American community, despite coming together to assist the state, is now divided again.
“The recent police brutality and killing of George Floyd shocked the country and the Chinese American community, and has led to a deep and comprehensive discussion and debate in the Chinese American community,” said Qi Hong, secretary of UCAWA.
“The opinions of the Chinese community itself are divided, and the gap between the two generations is revealed. As a member of the community, I found myself struggling with reasoning out the options of two sides, and trying to rationally analyze their positions,” she said.
“We hope that the Chinese American community can keep up the spirit of serving the community and increase our political participation. As a minority group, Chinese American voters’ turnout rate has been low. Although it has improved recently, it is far from enough. We should not get caught up in partisan disputes and quarrels, but integrate further into the community, just as we did in past months.”
Mahlon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.