While in the United States the COVID-19 pandemic has only come to a head in recent weeks, Asian Americans in South Jersey have watched and listened for much longer as their families across the globe battled the illness.
Moorestown resident Angela Zhong and Cherry Hill’s Dorothy Wang, along with other community members, knew it was only a matter of time before the virus crippled the U.S. in the same way it attacked friends and family in China.
So members of the Asian American network across South Jersey began preparing for the virus by getting masks and other supplies to keep their families safe. Given the current critical need for masks in the health care sector, members of a Cherry Hill Chinese Neighbor Friendship WeChat group and the Asian Alliance in South Jersey have been donating their masks to health care workers and making arrangements to have additional masks shipped from China to the area.
Wang moved to Cherry Hill about eight years ago from Beijing, China. She didn’t know anyone, and as time went on, she felt she lacked a sense of community. So around five years ago, Wang started the Chinese Neighbor group in WeChat, a popular international messaging app started in China. The group has since snowballed, with members of the Asian American community from across Camden and Burlington joining and exchanging information.
In January, the group became aware of the havoc the coronavirus was wreaking in China. Wang said through exchanges with family and friends abroad, the group knew the situation was becoming increasingly serious. So many of them prepared by buying masks; Wang said she purchased about 100 herself.
Zhong said in Asian cultures, wearing a mask is much more normalized than in America. She noted that people wear masks out the front door each day to protect themselves and their families. So some of them purchased masks online or at their local stores.
As the situation in China began to settle down around a month ago — with some people returning to work — members of the WeChat group asked their contacts abroad to send any masks they could spare.
“We [knew] from the beginning, we know how dangerous it is and how it would bring down the whole medical staff,” Zhong said.
Then statewide restrictions were put in place. Zhong said with the order to stay home, it didn’t make sense for her or others to keep the masks given the shortage and the fact that they can’t venture out of the house anyway. So, Zhong took to WeChat and asked if anyone was willing to donate their masks.
Within two hours on March 21, Zhong collected 82 N95 masks and 15 disposable face masks. From there, she went on local Facebook groups and offered the masks to doctors, nurses and medical professionals.
Zhong exchanged them in her driveway while wearing gloves to around 20 people, some of whom were picking up masks for others. She said the first distribution will cover around 50 people.
Zhong has since been getting offers from members of the WeChat group and is collecting more masks to pass along as she can. Some members have orders of N95 masks or disposable masks coming from China that they’ll distribute locally to the needy once they arrive.
“As [a] group of people, we have been making every effort to source FDA qualified masks and buy from every way we can get in China now that China has got back to work,” Zhong said in a Facebook post. “We have been trying really hard and using everyone’s connections all over the world to work on it.”
Wang said on March 20, she received a message about the mask shortage from a friend who’s a doctor at the University of Pennsylvania. So, she, too, has been collecting and donating masks. To date, she’s collected more than 300 masks and 400 gloves to pass along to friends and neighbors in the medical community.
She and her neighbors who have donated are acutely aware that if the medical community isn’t kept safe, the pandemic crisis will only be exacerbated as more people get sick without enough staff on hand to help.
“They need to protect themselves first,” Wang said. “They have to go to the hospital every day; we can stay at home as much as possible.”
Wang has more than 100 masks being shipped from China, though when they’ll arrive she’s not certain. Because of the shortage, the masks aren’t medical grade, but she’s hopeful they’ll still come in handy to donate.
Wang noted that there’s been a deep sense of unease given the recent surge of xenophobia toward Asian Americans, but community members are especially proud to give back and prove those fears are unfounded.
“We are American Chinese people,” she said. “We live here. We care about the community.”