“Fight the virus, not each other”: The Yale-China Association tackles the COVID-19 outbreak

While New Haven celebrated the Lunar New Year at the Yale-China Association’s annual Lunarfest, its sister city across the world—Changsha, China—braced for the imminent spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19).

Yale-China, an independent non-profit organization dedicated to promoting Sino-American cultural exchange, paused its Lunarfest festivities earlier this month to express support for Changsha and the outbreak’s epicenter, Wuhan. The Association’s president, David Youtz, led New Haven attendants in a chant of “Jiayou!”—a common Chinese expression of encouragement.

Founded in 1901 by Yale faculty and alumni, Yale-China partners with hospitals and schools in New Haven, China, and Hong Kong to host annual fellowships and exchange programs in education, arts, and health. The rapid spread of COVID-19 has suddenly pushed Yale-China to suspend or postpone these programs, disrupting the work of over thirty fellows and students. Yale undergraduates who looked forward to their exchange programs at Hong Kong or mainland Chinese universities have cancelled their spring break travels. Yale-China’s ten Teaching Fellows posted at mainland Chinese schools have been flown home, indefinitely unable to return to their students. 

“We worry for all the people we work with in China—so much of it is bad news,” Youtz said. “But as we have adjusted everything we’re doing, there are a few silver linings.”

The Teaching Fellows have created online instructional content for their students, a creative alternative welcomed by their Chinese partner high schools. Yale-China’s Vice President and Director of Programs, Leslie Stone, has connected the Fellows with Yale-China alumni for mentorship or internships during the interim period. Over a single weekend, former Yale-China Board Chair Chris Murck organized an emergency fundraiser to cover the unexpected costs of relocating and supporting the Fellows this spring. 

“[This commitment] is emblematic of what Yale-China stands for: building trust and mutual understanding between Chinese and Americans,” Stone said. “In the midst of this uncertainty and stress, [the fact] that this bridge remains strong is really touching.”

Although many of its programs have halted, Yale-China’s health partnerships in China have only strengthened. Yale-China works closely with Changsha’s three Xiangya hospitals, which have become China’s most famous and long-standing medical institutions since Yale-China established them over a century ago, according to Junya Zhu, Yale-China’s Director of Health Programs. Zhu reported that the hospitals have jointly sent around five hundred physicians and nurses to Wuhan to support frontline work of epidemic prevention and control. Among them are three former Yale-China Chia Fellows, Chinese health professionals who have completed six-month research programs at Yale. A 2011 Chia Fellow, Li Li, is currently leading a team of over a hundred nurses that arrived in Wuhan early February to treat patients with severe symptoms. 

As Yale-trained medical affiliates address the COVID-19 crisis, Yale-China plans to move forward with its pilot rural healthcare initiative in Western Hunan after a delay. These projects equip healthcare delivery systems to control diseases such as COVID-19. Amidst the outbreak, Yale-China’s partnerships with Chinese health institutions are increasingly relevant. “It’s important for Yale students to know that they can make a meaningful difference in China as ambassadors for Yale at these sites where we’ve had such long-term connections,” Stone, the programs director, said.

Back in New Haven, Yale-China has been addressing homegrown issues. As outbreaks erupt in various regions around the world, so do reports of escalating xenophobia and racial discrimination against Asian communities. In response, Jessica Hahne, Yale-China’s Senior Health Programs Officer, developed a public service announcement (PSA) video to promote a message of informed precaution and empathy, rather than fear. The animated video, called “Don’t let fear be contagious,” depicts global panic in response to coronavirus reports and a mini-storyline of three children facing discrimination: one for being Wuhanese, one for being Chinese, and one for simply interacting with someone Chinese. 

“During times of crisis, people can often become really afraid in ways that in fact can make the crisis worse and make people turn against one another and create another layer of crisis with stigma and discrimination on top of the health risk,” Hahne said. “We wanted to encourage people not to make quick assumptions.”

The PSA video also suggests meaningful actions to prevent the spread of coronavirus—do wash your hands often with soap for at least twenty seconds, don’t overwhelm yourself with information from social media. This message has been widely shared on Facebook and the Chinese social media platform WeChat, supported by related organizations like Yale’s Chinese American Students Association and Yale Center Beijing. The video’s animator, Julia Shi, PC ’20, felt the outbreak’s effects as a Chinese American with close family ties to China. She hoped to express how hurtful and counterproductive stereotyping can be in the face of an epidemic. 

“Many of my friends who are East-Asian—not just Chinese—have encountered experiences where they were called racial slurs and intentionally avoided by strangers, so I’ve lately thought a lot about the social side effects of the coronavirus outbreak and the paranoia and stigmatism it has created,” Shi said.  

Other video collaborators, Xiaosong (Ophelia) Gao, EPH ’20, and Yana Wang, a research fellow at Yale School of Drama, shared their perspectives as international students. Informed by both her Chinese heritage and public health background, Gao revealed nuanced social and psychological pressures that afflict Chinese international students: They may feel flooded by the rush of bad news from home, powerless to help while in the States. Gao called for “rational voices” instead of emotional and fearful reactions, citing the importance of transparency and timeliness in coronavirus reporting. “We need to have a platform to communicate [accurate news] and make sure everyone’s on the same page,” Gao said. “Otherwise, information asymmetry will create very different views about the same thing, even though people may come with good intentions.”

To provide a healing space for those emotionally affected by the outbreak, Hahne has planned a new event with Yale psychiatry fellow Eunice Yuen, who studies mental health and cross-cultural challenges in Asian American and international student populations. Yuen specializes in using theatrical vignette performances to stimulate discussion around mental health. Participants will act out scenes based on real-life scenarios of the coronavirus outbreak to help them reflect on their feelings. 

“This type of activity helps people relate to a storyline, which can encourage them to process difficulties that have to do with mental health and conflict,” Hahne explained. “It can also feel productive because the audience participates in changing the storyline.”

In New Haven, coronavirus-fueled xenophobia causes more harm than the virus itself. Yale-China’s efforts to maintain constructive partnerships with China and campaign against misinformation reflect their PSA’s resounding message: “Fight the virus, not each other.”

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