Three weeks ago, the organization Wuhan United didn’t exist.
But on January 23, the Chinese government locked down the city of Wuhan in an attempt to contain a novel coronavirus, and a group of Bay Area residents, all of Chinese descent and raised or educated in Wuhan, swung into action.
“When the lockdown happened, we realized this is really, really serious,” said Tom Gong, a Silicon Valley business owner who was born in Wuhan and educated at the city’s Huazhong University of Science and Technology.
For Gong, the outbreak was deeply personal. He’d done business in Wuhan for years. His wife’s family – including her younger sister – were doctors at Wuhan Union Hospital. And he’d only recently returned from a business trip to China, which made him feel he’d had a narrow escape. “The virus was probably already there,” he said.
Gong recruited Bay Area-based alumni from two Wuhan universities to form Wuhan United, an initiative devoted to procuring much-needed supplies to fight the outbreak.
“I felt I had to do something, and I think most of the people in Wuhan United felt the same way,” said Xiaosong Zhou, an engineer at Apple who’s active in the group. (Most members don’t have finely-defined roles – they just do what’s needed at the moment, from handling the finances to seeking out new opportunities for collaboration.)
“At the beginning, we didn’t know how much we could do,” said Zhou. “So we kind of got together and tried to figure out ways to help.”
For the doctors fighting coronavirus, one of the biggest problems has been the lack of supplies, including personal protective equipment like masks, gowns, and gloves. “People are dying. Doctors are working without protection,” Gong said bluntly.
Wuhan United’s members were all too aware of the problem, but “at the beginning we didn’t have much of a clue how to get started,” Zhou said.
Members first tried going to local drugstores and purchasing masks to send to China, but quickly realized it simply wasn’t an efficient way to help. Next, they reached out to large manufacturers, but the companies either didn’t have reserves or required a larger order than the initiative’s members could make.
Then Gong remembered Direct Relief. He’d encountered the organization during its response to the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, and knew it had a significant medical inventory. So he decided to reach out.
His request crossed the desk of Cydney Justman, a senior emergency response manager at Direct Relief. “We’re getting dozens of requests for support,” she said. But Gong’s stood out. “He was so aware of all the logistical hurdles and complications…and was able to put forth a plan.”
Gong was able to connect Direct Relief to contacts at Wuhan Union Hospital, along with Hubei Charity Federation and the Chinese Red Cross – both organizations, Justman said, that are approved to receive charitable donations in China. FedEx donated its transportation and logistics services. And a wide range of private sector companies and foundations offered help.
Gong’s expertise and precision were essential, Justman said. He confirmed that the specific products Direct Relief could offer were precisely what was needed. “We felt really comfortable that what we were sending was going to be well received,” Justman said.
The initiative – currently around 30 people – continues to gain ground. “It’s like a company, with people doing business development, people doing support and operations,” Gong said.
Since most of its members have full-time jobs, meetings are held from 10 p.m. to midnight. If something needs to be done quickly, it’s done by whoever happens to be free at that moment. “We have a WeChat group. We just shout out, ‘Who wants to do this?’” Zhou said.
It’s been hard for Wuhan United’s members, many of whom have family or friends in areas hit hard by the coronavirus. Zhou has friends, classmates, and in-laws in quarantined Wuhan.
“There’s definitely a lot of fear. Partly because of the disease, partly because the situation is not clear,” he said. “I’ve heard stories about friends of friends who have been sick and had trouble finding a bed in a hospital.”
Wuhan United also works with alumni associations inside Wuhan, who have organized volunteers to help distribute medical supplies. “They’re really risking their own health and their own lives to do this, because the hospital is really the one place you don’t want to be. It was very touching, talking to them,” Zhou said.
Although the initiative is currently focused on shipping supplies to help stop the disease’s spread, Zhou said he imagines having a more long-term role to play.
“There’s going to be a lot more work to do… I imagine there are going to be a lot of problems,” he said. “Our goal is not just to help them through this phase of the crisis but also the recovery from this, in the future.”