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This Professor Loved Wenzhou. So When Coronavirus Hit, She Sprang into Action.

Mayfair Yang, a professor at UC Santa Barbara, worked with Direct Relief to coordinate a shipment of supplies to hard-hit Wenzhou.

Professor Mayfair Yang, second from left, conducting anthropological research in Wenzhou. (Photo courtesy of Mayfair Yang)
Professor Mayfair Yang, second from left, conducting anthropological research in Wenzhou. (Photo courtesy of Mayfair Yang)

Mayfair Yang doesn’t have a medical background. She doesn’t research public health or disease prevention. But when it came to finding help for Wenzhou – a municipality in the province of Zhejiang, which has been hit particularly hard by the novel coronavirus COVID-19 – she turned out to be exactly the right person.

Yang, a professor of religious studies and East Asian culture at UC Santa Barbara, has done fieldwork in Wenzhou since the 1990s. And in the process, she’s fallen in love with the local culture.

The municipality’s residents speak a unique language – Wenzhounese – and remain strongly Buddhist and Taoist even as China’s mainstream culture has veered sharply toward secularism. Entrepreneurs, especially in the manufacturing industry, abound.

But in particular, Yang has been struck by the high levels of community activism and awareness in Wenzhou.

“What I marvel at about this culture… is that they seem to be especially into voluntary associations and highly motivated to self-organize,” she said. “They’re very much a grassroots kind of culture.”

Yang has some of that grassroots spirit herself, which has characterized a number of coronavirus response efforts. When COVID-19 swept through Wenzhou, she felt called to help.

“Fending for Themselves”

As the coronavirus outbreak has turned into an international crisis, it’s Wuhan – the epicenter of the outbreak, located in Hubei province – that has received the lion’s share of attention. The government has ordered medical workers from across China to Hubei, to deal with the crisis at its source.

But Wenzhou – about 400 miles away – is struggling as well. The main city has about 500 confirmed cases of coronavirus, with some saying that the number is probably higher. The larger province, Zhejiang, has the second-highest number of cases after Hubei.

And doctors in Wenzhou are, like those in Wuhan, dealing with an acute, frightening shortage of protective equipment like masks, gloves, and coveralls.

“Wenzhou is not on people’s radar,” Yang said. “They are fending for themselves.”

The main city of Wenzhou, which has a population of about 3.5 million, currently has approximately 500 confirmed cases of coronavirus. However, Yang said, that number may actually be higher.

Despite the distance, Wuhan and Wenzhou have close connections. Around 170,000 people from Wenzhou live and do business in Wuhan, according to Reuters. Entrepreneurs and migrant workers alike travel back and forth between the two cities, Yang explained.

In an attempt to curb the virus’s spread, the Chinese government has implemented a lockdown of Wenzhou, attempting to cut off transportation and out of the city and limiting the number of people per household allowed out.

“I was getting messages from my friends that Wenzhou was being hit very badly,” Yang recalled.

A Grassroots Culture

Yang was already a donor to Direct Relief, which is also based in Santa Barbara. She knew the organization had already provided aid to Wuhan. So she reached out.

The organization offered a wide range of protective gear, from masks and face shields to shoe covers, to be distributed among Wenzhou hospitals.

Direct Relief staff members prepare a shipment of personal protective equipment, bound for Wenzhou. (Tony Morain/Direct Relief)

“After focusing our donations on the primary health facilities of the three largest cities of Hubei Province, we turned to support Zhejiang, which is experiencing the second high occurrence of coronavirus after Hubei,” said Dan Hovey, Direct Relief emergency response manager.

One fact particularly concerned Hovey: more than 300,000 workers from Hubei province work in Wenzhou, and many of them had gone to visit family during the Lunar New Year. Their return to Wenzhou threatened another wave of coronavirus exposure.

Arrangements had to be made for the shipment to clear customs and for its contents to be distributed throughout the municipality.

That’s where Wenzhou’s grassroots culture came in handy.

To make sure the shipment would be received and distributed quickly, Yang reached out to a friend, Gang Zhou. Zhou is a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, which advises China’s Communist Party on policy and legislation.

Zhou sprang into action, pulling together a group of more than 30 health workers and volunteers over WeChat to prepare for the shipment. “He’s a very good and capable and conscientious organizer,” Yang said. “He has been tireless in his efforts.”

Yang has been pleased, but not surprised, by the enthusiasm of volunteers on the ground in Wenzhou. “Some of them are strangers to each other, but they all have this compelling desire to help the larger community,” she said.

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