Coronavirus on campus: Low risk of infection, high risk of anxiety

Experiences reveal impact of virus, personal toll on families


photo courtesy of Tribune News Service

Masked shoppers in a supermarket in Wuhan, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, in central China’s Hubei province on Feb. 10. Many students on campus have been affected by the coronavirus as they have family members still living in China.

By Min Cheong Kim, Staff Writer

For University students who have loved ones in China, the coronavirus outbreak has caused their worries to skyrocket.

“They do not have freedom right now,” said Chrison Hu, senior in ACES. While Hu and her sister are currently studying in the U.S., her family is back in China. 

“Even though my parents are not in Wuhan, a lot of my friends and their families are in Wuhan,” Hu said. “My mom told me some of her friends’ family have died from this virus.”

While the coronavirus has not been reported on campus, it is definitely taking an emotional toll on the students. Whatever the situation may be for students who have family in China, they share the same worry and concern for their family and friends. 

“People can’t go out. I feel sad for them. They can only stay home,” Hu said.

For a student who lives in Wuhan and visited their family over this past winter break, their fears are even more real because they have witnessed a glimpse of what is happening in China. 

“My parents have stayed home for about 23 days right now. They stored a lot of food before because of the Chinese New Year, but they are now running out of a lot of stuff,” said Chloe Chang, senior in Business. 

In the beginning of January, Chang and her family were just starting to hear news of a virus and were not too concerned, but they prepared in advance, just in case, by buying masks and sanitation supplies. Chang said the situation got worse around Jan. 10, while the University was still on break, and she was still home. Her parents still had to go to work, but she canceled her plans and stayed home. 

Chang recalls what it was like traveling back to school.

“When I was going back for school, there were government workers who were checking your temperature at the airport, and they checked my temperature again at the security checkpoint,” Chang said. “All of the flight attendants and everyone on the plane were wearing masks. I was pretty scared when I was on the plane. I didn’t even drink anything or eat anything.” 

For Chang and many students who visited Wuhan over winter break, they worked with the McKinley Health Center to ensure they were safe from the coronavirus. Chang did not show symptoms of the coronavirus, but she chose to stay home in her apartment off-campus for 14 days as a precaution. 

Although she received support from professors, her learning experience is, of course, different.

“One of my professors offered online courses for me, and although they were really helpful, I still feel like I miss a lot of information from the in-class lectures, and I miss out on a lot of group projects,” Chang said. 

On top of academic and social stresses resulting from self-quarantine, many students like Chang also carry great concern for their families. Chang said her family is still is Wuhan, and she’s skeptical the situation will improve.  

Currently, many families in China are struggling with rationing supplies in addition to adapting to their new indoor, everyday lives.

“There is only one person they designate to go out, so they can save their masks, bodysuits and any sterilization equipment. They quickly ran out at stores, and there’s a manufacturing shortage,” said Lily Ho, senior in Engineering. “Stepping out of the house without a mask is taboo now.” 

It is a distressing time for students like Ho who live in the U.S. but have family in China. She and her family here are trying to figure out how to help from afar. 

“Some of my family ran out of masks. So me and my mom are over here in the States, trying to figure out how to send masks to them,” Ho said, “But my relatives in Beijing said a lot of the postal services stopped. There are no cars and no people on the streets. The prices for masks have been jacked up so much, even outside of China, and it’s also hard to tell if they are fakes or if they were already opened by other people.” 

Ho said she bought one box of masks for $40, but that’s all. She feels helpless “because there is nothing (she and her family in the U.S.) can do.”

People in China are working from home on their computers, and children are taking their classes online. Food is even becoming a luxury as people have limited options to choose from. Parents are not able to take their children out to play, and families can not take their pets out to walk.

“There are checkpoints at a lot of major roads now,” Ho said. “My uncle, when he was driving from one city to another, finally after he was allowed to leave, he passed through three checkpoints. At each checkpoint, he had to sign a legal document saying that if he felt ill and did not self-quarantine and was discovered outside with ill symptoms, he could be sentenced to six months in prison after he recovers.” 

Transportation between provinces and cities is difficult, and for some cases, it is separating families. For David Ji Lam, sophomore in Engineering, his parents work in different cities, and they are currently separated in their own cities due to government travel regulations.

“There are different license plates for different cities in China,” Lam said. “And if your car is not of that province or state, you can’t enter that city.”

As a student studying at a university across the world, Lam said it’s a constant struggle not to think of worst-case scenarios.

“I’m worried because if my parents somehow get sick, I can’t really go back,” Lam said. “That’s one of my biggest worries. Also, they are separated, so they cannot depend on each other either.” 

While people are trying to stay positive, even celebrations of love have their hurdles, Ho said.

“Valentine’s Day just passed, and my cousin was telling me that a lot of people wouldn’t even buy flowers, or they were even afraid to sniff the flowers because they were afraid of other people who handled it,” Ho said. 

The impacts of the coronavirus is worldwide, but the numbers of people infected are little to none on this campus.

“Currently, there is not really a risk in the United States,” said Julie Pryde, public health administrator for the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District. “The real health concern going around in our community is influenza. What you do to prevent the coronavirus and influenza is the same, except for influenza, we are lucky enough to have a vaccine.”

There is a social epidemic of xenophobia and discrimination in different parts of the world due to the virus with an origin in China. Pryde explains that while people may discriminate each other based on who has the virus or not, the virus itself does not discriminate.

“A virus can emerge anywhere. It is ridiculous to think that a virus cares one bit about who it’s infecting because it does not,” Pryde said.

While the epidemic in a foreign country can be surreal for many, the unsettling headlines are an ongoing reality for students with family and friends in China. Despite the dire circumstance, families are staying in touch and trying their best to stay positive by finding gratitude and happiness in the small things. The impacts of the virus runs far past the physical body as it creates emotional turbulence of fear and hope. 

“It’s difficult. I check the news every morning, and my mom calls family every night,” Ho said. “It’s a waiting game.”

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