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Mourning and Reflections in the Time of COVID-19

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Keren Zhu
April 7, 2021

This is the second April that I can’t return to China to sweep my mother’s grave on Qingming due to travel restrictions. Such pain seems negligible compared with people mourning their loved ones lost to the pandemic, or those struggling in isolation and despair.

One year into our battle with the pandemic that affects over 200 countries with 2.7 million deaths, we collectively die a little. As vaccine distribution speeds up, people are ready to leave behind a winter that saw so much suffering and death and embrace spring’s hope and optimism. But as policy professionals, we should not let our collective memory of the pandemic fade quickly, leaving accumulated tensions and crises unattended, and our pains, losses and rage in vain.

I will remember three faces of the pandemic and the policy lessons they teach.

I will remember the heart wrench when I saw a widely shared message from my high school history teacher on social media, asking for help to get her family in Wuhan quarantined and hospitalized. On January 23, 2020, the central government of China imposed a lockdown in Wuhan and other cities in Hubei Province to quarantine the outbreak of COVID-19. A lockdown unprecedented in public health history eventually helped contain the national outbreak, but also led to a rise in concentrated infections and paralysis of health services in Wuhan. In addition to acknowledging people’s sacrifice, it is critical that we understand how better governance may help avoid the next crisis.

Similar to challenges confronting other parts of the world, communities in China were not equipped with sufficient resources and expertise to deal with sudden surge in demand for social services during the pandemic. Community government did the heavy-lifting with sparse resources. These local officials were responsible for dispatching staff and volunteers, case tracing, managing quarantines, disinfection and inspection, providing community services for residents, as well as disseminating epidemic-related policy and information. In addition, community staff were burdened with the paperwork required by more senior government authorities to keep a record on management and accountability. Coupled with personnel shortages, they had to work 24-7 shifts, suffering from exhaustion and stress as a result. Yet, many on social media accused them of being delinquent.

These problems in China were similar to those in other parts of the world. To prepare for future crises, policymakers need to strengthen community emergency response by professionalizing the workforce, devising contingency plans, mobilizing volunteers and expert support and attending to physical and mental health needs of vulnerable groups.

I will also remember the death of Jon Magufuli, Tanzania’s strongman president who was the country’s chief skeptic on the virus and vaccines and who insisted that gathering in churches and mosques would protect Tanzanians against the disease. His death represents the paradox of the pandemic in Africa, a continent that has registered fewer total cases compared with elsewhere in the world, but where several prominent leaders have died from coronavirus-like symptoms.

Behind the paradox is the politics of inequality. The pandemic does not affect each country and community equally, and unequal access to resources and information is prolonging individual suffering. The health shock of COVID-19 has been even more disastrous for developing countries, whose already strained health systems caused even deeper social and economic emergencies.

The first major global pandemic in the age of globalization tells us that no country could face this pandemic alone, and the international community needs solidarity and cooperation more than ever. In the next international medical emergency, policymakers need to go beyond existing cooperation mechanisms, and be more collaborative about research and more equitable about sharing resources. Ongoing vaccine diplomacies should be a starting point for dialogues on how to better provide public goods and enhance collective resilience in times of crises.

Finally, I will also remember the name of Xiaojie Tan, who was days away from her 50th birthday when she was shot dead in a spa parlor in Atlanta, targeted along with 5 other Asian women that day. They are only the latest in over 8,000 incidents of anti-Asian violence since the start of the pandemic in the United States. While the direct trigger of violence against Asian immigrants may be language like “China virus” and “Kung Flu” initiated by a divisive political leader, the root causes lie in a long history of anti-Asian discrimination, self-perpetuating structural inequality and partisan politics that have given rise to a deadly, new wave of Asian-bashing.

Asian hatred is not the only form of discrimination that is heightened in times of resource scarcity. Glass ceilings and bamboo ceilings all impose barriers to the free flow of talent and limit the unbound possibilities that diversity offers.

Policymakers should strive to better understand the historical and structural roots of discrimination, design more tailored policies to reduce inequality, incorporate diversity instruction—especially into civics education, reduce competition over resources by promoting and encouraging cooperative behaviors and help make the world less divisive and more equal when confronting the next crisis.

Pandemics end. Tears dry. Spring rains renew the earth every year. We do well to remember this, even as we enter another cruel April.

Author: Keren Zhu ([email protected], @Zhu_Keren) is a PhD candidate at the Pardee RAND Graduate School. Her research interests include global infrastructure and international development. Prior to joining RAND, she was the international affairs manager at Research and Development International, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, where she promoted international cooperation and produced policy research to advance the Belt and Road Initiative.

Her thoughts do not necessarily reflect those of the RAND Corporation, Pardee RAND, or RAND’s research sponsors.

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