This year is the first time Mingyu Sun’s family has not met for Lunar New Year.
There was no feast, no reunion, no “holiday feeling,” as Sun described it. Despite living in the same city, her family in Wuhan, China, stayed in their homes as a precaution against the coronavirus outbreak across the country.
“My family are quite traditional, so we always gather together for several days,” Sun, a University of Georgia student, said. “But only this year we won’t have that big dinner together.”
As Jan. 25 rang in the Lunar New Year with the start of a new Chinese Zodiac cycle, quarantine and containment efforts continued as the Chinese government tried to suppress the spread of the virus, which was first identified in Wuhan.
The virus spreads through person-to-person contact, and patients exhibit symptoms similar to respiratory illnesses, said Mark Jackwood, a UGA professor who researches avian coronaviruses. The disease can be fatal, especially when coupled with other complications and preexisting health conditions.
“The unique thing about coronaviruses is there’s a whole bunch of different ones,” Jackwood said. “You can have a cold this week and then get over it two weeks later and a month later get another one because they’re all different.”
While the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) related coronaviruses have caused similar outbreaks, Jackwood said the new coronavirus is a different strain. Jackwood said there are currently no vaccines available, no immunity in humans and the only treatments available are for treating symptoms.
Most of the outbreak is concentrated in China, but as of press time, 20 countries have reported cases of the coronavirus. In the U.S., five cases have been reported so far. None have been reported in Georgia.
At UGA, nearly 30% of international students in fall 2018 came from China, and some of them visited family and friends in China over winter break. Halfway across the world in Athens, students are still witnessing the effects of the outbreak through loved ones’ experiences.
The frenzy surrounding the outbreak has elicited panic and false alarms. Speculation of coronavirus cases at colleges, such as Georgia Tech and Tennessee Tech University, have been dispelled. However, a case has been confirmed at Arizona State University.
Sun, whose family and friends are at the origin of the outbreak, said people from Wuhan have a different, more practical perspective of the outbreak. While her family has been quarantined, Sun said they are trying to keep their spirits up by keeping in touch online and helping each other. Tairan Qiu, a third-year doctoral student, said her family has been coping with the boredom, telling her, “We’re so happy — we’re just playing mahjong everyday.”
“I don’t know if they’re trying to comfort me or if they’re actually happy,” Qiu said.
In the U.S., Sun said people have expressed discriminatory sentiments to her because she is from Wuhan. People have asked for Sun to be “quarantined” — in person, from messages sent on the Chinese messaging app WeChat and through an anonymous email sent to her department head. Some of these people Sun has never met, others were friends.
“It’s okay that people are afraid,” Sun said. “I didn’t feel very happy when I got this message, but I won’t deliberately go into a crowd.”
Yixuan Wang, a first-year doctoral student from Kunming, China, said although her family does not live in Wuhan, she is still concerned about the spread of the virus to other parts of the country. Wang said this outbreak is an “emotional burden” that other students may not understand.
“International students from these countries on campus are suffering right now. This is just one more challenge we have to deal with,” Wang said. “These people are not just the numbers in the news, these are real people. And these are people who are our families or friends.”
This winter break happened to be the first time Sun traveled back to China in three-and-a-half years, only to return within days of the newly enforced travel precautions.
On Jan. 23, the U.S. State Department released a Level 4 travel advisory for the Hubei province, which indicates “Do not travel.” On Jan. 27, the U.S. travel advisory for all of China was updated from Level 2 to 3, which indicates “Reconsider travel.”
While the first case was reported on Dec. 31, Sun said people were still unaware of the virus’s severity when she left China.
When Sun arrived in Athens, she visited the University Health Center as a precautionary measure and returned with no abnormal results. At that point, the international outbreak was not as urgent. Since then, Sun said the situation has escalated.
“The first time [during the 2003 SARS outbreak], Wuhan was not the center of the outbreak, but this time, Wuhan is the most central place,” Sun said.
Some Lunar New Year events in Athens were canceled as a precautionary measure, in case students who recently traveled to China carried the virus.
Sun said she avoided all Lunar New Year festivities in Athens on her own accord. While she did not have any Lunar New Year plans, Sun said she still feels “quite happy” from her reunion with her family over the break.
A novel coronavirus
Rongbin Han, a UGA associate professor of international affairs, was a college student in Beijing at the time of the 2003 SARS outbreak. Han said certain political mistakes left unaddressed from the previous outbreak — such as neglecting to establish a public health crisis protocol for local governments — may have lasting implications on people’s trust.
“Even though there’s a strong state, it’s internally fragmented, and different actors within the state have very different incentives,” Han said. “A crisis like this will affect a lot of people’s attitude toward the government. The party has to do a lot of things to win people back.”
Han said China’s strong central government is effective in mobilizing resources to fight the virus. Broadcasting the government’s progress through media, such as the live construction of a makeshift hospital in Wuhan, is “partly a propaganda campaign” and “partly the regime because China has the capacity to do things like this.”
Han said the quarantine efforts in both the SARS and current outbreaks were and are effective. Han keeps in touch with his family in China through WeChat and said his hometown is effectively “closed.” Because of people’s abidance to the quarantines, Han predicts an eventual stagnation or potential decline of the outbreak over the next couple of weeks.
While there is currently no vaccine for the virus, Jackwood said there are precautionary measures, such as proper hygiene practices.
Jackwood suggests people use N95 masks, as they are more protective, custom-fitted masks used in research. These masks are more effective against the spread of the virus than common surgical masks.
Despite its exponential spread and severity in China, Jackwood said it is not likely for the virus to be of concern in Athens.
“Health professionals need to be on top of this — the CDC [Centers for Disease Control] certainly is — and precautions need to be taken. But we don’t want people to panic,” Jackwood said.
Editor's Note: The World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus outbreak a public health emergency of international concern on Jan. 30.