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Chinese Minnesotans fight coronavirus, racism

Minnesota's various Chinese-American community organizations have been a massive powerhouse for getting protective gear to local hospitals.

Minnesota's various Chinese-American community organizations have been a massive powerhouse for getting protective gear to local hospitals. Courtesy of Jianling Yuan

The advance of coronavirus was a disquieting experience for Hongyi Lan.

In February, she and her friends and neighbors looked on as the virus ravaged China. They raised funds for medical supplies and protective equipment. They knew how serious the illness could be, and what it would take to stop it. Then it landed closer to home.

“For most Chinese people, psychologically, we were more prepared,” Lan says.

This meant not just from watching the effect of novel coronavirus, but its predecessor – the SARS epidemic that slammed China.

“A lot of health care professionals died,” she says.

As word spread health care workers in local hospitals were short on protective gear, Minnesota’s Chinese-American community organizations sprang into action. People collected high-quality, heavy-duty masks – some sent directly from relatives in China, some bought on their own dime, some painstakingly stiched – and donating them en masse to local clinics.

Donors include people struggling to get by. Others are little kids who have, in short order, mastered mask patterns on sewing machines. Plenty are health care workers themselves. By Monday, the Association of Minnesota Chinese Physicians alone said it collected nearly $71,000 in Twin Cities donations for protective equipment for local hospitals.

Even kids are helping out, learning how to make handmade protective masks with sewing machines.

Even kids are helping out, learning how to make handmade protective masks with sewing machines. Courtesy of Jianling Yuan

Jianling Yuan, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota’s Department of Radiation Oncology, has turned her home into one of several drop-off locations for mask donations. Within the first two or three days, friends and neighbors in the North Oak and Shoreview area had deposited nearly a thousand.

Having a supply of extra protective gear on hand meant the world to not only Yuan, but patients going through radiation treatment. Immunocompromised subjects are especially vulnerable to the virus. She’s spoken to patients who were scared, in tears, pleading for something to protect them when they have to go get groceries. She’s been so relieved to be able to give them that comfort.

“It was very touching and moving,” she says.

The Alliance of Minnesota Chinese Organizations, along with the Minnesota Chinese Chamber of Commerce, have also been raising funds to aid both Minnesota and China in combating the epidemic. About $17,000 is going directly to the University of Minnesota Foundation to support drug trials and medical equipment.

For the most part, the volunteers say, these drives have been an explosion of optimism, full of togetherness and effusive gratitude. But there is an undercurrent of apprehension. Because the virus was first reported in the Wuhan region of China, Chinese Americans – and pretty much anyone else of Asian descent – have been the target of ugly sentiments as news of the virus has spread.

Stories of people covering their faces when they see Asian people out in public, or sometimes even leaving racist notes on their front doors, have cropped up all in Minnesota and beyond. This week, Gov. Tim Walz launched an anti-discrimination hotline following a bevy of reports of anti-Asian bias.

Tens of thousands of dollars and countless masks have made their way to local hospitals and clinics, and they're still coming.

Tens of thousands of dollars and countless masks have made their way to local hospitals and clinics, and they're still coming. Courtesy of Jianling Yuan

Lan says she feels relatively safe in Minnesota – especially in her neighborhood. People greet her with a smile, from the recommended six feet away, when she goes on her afternoon walks. But the fear is out there.

“Some of my friends are very worried,” Yuan says. “People talk about whether they should get a gun or something.”

But mostly, they’re ignoring the bad stuff and staying trained on being the best citizens they can possibly be. The focus, Yuan says, should be on beating this virus, working together. Everything else comes second.

“I’m very proud to be part of this community,” she says.



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