March 3, 2020

YANG | Be Vigilant, Remain Calm and Stop Hoarding Masks

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When I woke up Monday morning, I never expected that my parents would call me. These days it would most certainly be me calling them, updating them about my dismal law school applications so far or asking for an update on the coronavirus situation back home. And I certainly didn’t expect my parents to ask me how bad the coronavirus outbreak in America was.

The situation in America and other areas outside of China is certainly alarming. According to the latest Center for Disease Control DC update, 60 cases of the virus have been reported in 12 states of the United States. This list of states includes New York.  Around the world, according to the World Health Organization’s  42nd report, there are 8,774 cases outside of China with 128 deaths. Though China is still the most affected country in the world by the virus, the March 2 WHO report listed more new cases outside of China than within. The question is settled: Covid-19 is now a global outbreak.

How worried should we, students at Cornell, be? The same question that faced me two months ago as a Chinese citizen is now faced by all people living in America.

It is important to stay vigilant. Conspiracy theories are aiming to downplay the impact of the outbreak in America. Recent reports of the CDC botching an initial diagnostic test while restricting community-based screening (which the CDC recently loosened) are all valid criticisms. The fact that people are now carrying small bottles of Purell (with its 70 percent alcohol content passing the CDC’s 60 percent mark for effectiveness) around Zeus is, perhaps, a positive development. Indeed, per the CDC’s recommendation, washing your hands frequently “with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after going to the bathroom, before eating and after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing” is very important for self-vigilance.

Beyond initial vigilance, however, it is also very important to also remain calm. An example of overt alarmism is the rampant apocalyptic humor that is now prevalent on campus. I stopped counting how many friends of mine are “preparing for the end” or attempting to hoard food for the “inevitable,” referencing even the “zombie apocalypse.” It is both humorous, sad and borderline pathetic for me, a Chinese citizen, to hear these sentiments.

I am not here to prevent some occasional gallows humor around campus (which, granted, is often appropriate for the campus setting). The recurring apocalyptic calling of some of the sentiments, however, can both bring out the theatrics of the crisis and lead us into ignoring the real danger. It may also lead us to emotional, illogical and often harmful responses to such crises that will deepen social stigma — especially against Chinese and other Asians. Even simple facts such as “being Chinese or Asian American does not increase the chance of getting or spreading COVID-19” is now needed to be stressed. I had already devoted the previous column on the topic of xenophobia in the context of the Coronavirus outbreak.

One alarmism out of all them that is worth mentioning is the desire to hoard masks. It is, perhaps, mostly affecting the Chinese community here. Already, parents from China are sending boxes of masks to their children here in Ithaca. Rumors of mask shortages in America, even here Ithaca, run rampant and compel me to assure my parents that free-of-use surgical masks are still widely available at Cornell Health.

The first answer to this problem is, simply, don’t hoard masks. Per the CDC’s recommendation, in America, so far, there is no need for “people who are well to wear a facemask to protect themselves from respiratory diseases, including COVID-19.” Mask-wearing is crucial for people who are sick or in a healthcare facility, and a general tendency to hoard masks will potentially prevent masks from falling in the hands of those who most need it. There is indeed a more nuanced problem surrounding this. As I had previously reported, many Chinese students are now not wearing masks out of fear of stigmatization, and racist incidents have occurred here on campus towards Chinese students wearing masks. It is very important to recognize that while wearing a mask as a healthy person at this time is not well-warranted, there is still no excuse for any person to discriminate against a mask-wearing individual who chooses to wear one out of precaution.

So, to put it simply, for all fellow Cornellians: Be vigilant, remain calm and, please, don’t hoard masks.

Weifeng Yang is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at weifengyang@cornellsun.com. Poplar  Sovereignty runs every other Wednesday this semester.

If you have concerns/seeking more information/resources related to coronavirus outbreak, please visit CDC’s “What we should know” at https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/about/index.html and https://www.cornell.edu/health-update/ for updates at Cornell.