How Chinese people came together when separated by quarantine, creating hope, humor and art

Fear and blame appear to be fast becoming Americans' defining emotions around COVID-19. Headlines seem to offer either worst-case estimates or government leaders' mutual accusations.

Amid the bewildering figures and contradictory political narratives, it is important to recall that numbers and governments are abstractions – whereas people actually live with and through disease. By fixating on the former, we risk losing sight of the human dimensions of epidemic life.


As a scholar researching the cultural aspects of the 2003 SARS epidemic, I too initially focused on geopolitics and biosecurity. But what I discovered in addition – rarely discussed but vitally humanizing – were the vibrant forms of everyday communal life generated by SARS at its very epicenters.

Under conditions of obligatory isolation and social distancing, common people invented new kinds of sociality and new genres of epidemic expressions. With COVID-19 now even more than SARS, the Chinese internet and social media offer a cornucopia of examples of epidemic communities brought together by heart, humor and creativity.


Wuhan residents chant ‘Keep it up, Wuhan’ out of their windows to boost morale www.youtube.com


Pandemic solidarity

One early set of viral videos surfaced in Wuhan just five days into the city's lockdown. On the night of Jan. 27, residents shouted "jiayou" – literally "add oil," meaning "hang in there" or "don't give up" – out their apartment windows, in a spontaneous burst of solidarity. It was a demonstration of collective strength and defiance, of people's refusal to be quelled by the virus and the quarantine, and their desire to cheer each other on.

One of these clips, uploaded onto YouTube by the South China Morning Post, has received over a million hits, with netizens from numerous Asian countries echoing "Wuhan jiayou!" in encouragement. Indeed, the refrain has flourished into a rallying cry among an international public on social media, despite the Chinese government's attempts to co-opt it as a slogan for ethnonational patriotism.


Good Samaritan Gives Cops 500 Masks Amid Shortage www.youtube.com


Pandemic care

This spirit of reciprocal support extends to the care of animals. The Wuhan lockdown has stranded tens of thousands of residents outside the city, leaving an estimated 50,000 pets trapped in unattended homes. Through social media, some pet owners connected with Lao Mao ("Old Cat"), who heads a team of volunteer animal rescuers in Wuhan. These rescuers now roam the city and sometimes break into deserted homes to feed abandoned cats and dogs.

Outside Hubei, other animal lovers likewise help those stuck inside the province look after their pets at home. These tales of animal caretaking, even in times of human crisis, can usefully offset perceptions of Chinese culture as simply one of cruel and unbridled animal consumption.

Another unexpected focal point for communal care is the face mask. Across China, masks have become a powerful vehicle for enacting goodwill, generosity and fellowship during the epidemic. In one viral video from Anhui, an anonymous Good Samaritan was captured on surveillance camera dropping off 500 masks at a local police station. As he hurried away, two officers ran outside to salute him.

This video in turn inspired the Hong Kong-based singer G.E.M. (Gloria Tang/Deng Ziqi) to compose "Angels," a song that garnered nearly 600,000 hits within the first day of its upload. A tribute to ordinary people's small acts of fortitude and kindness during the outbreak, the music video opens with the Anhui clip and then splices together other moving scenes, including a train employee gifting a mask to an elderly woman passenger and a man distributing free masks to travelers in an airport abroad.


【武汉肺炎最新情况】正月初二 封村 封城 地铁让座 戴口罩打麻将China Wuhan Coronavirus Outbreak www.youtube.com


Pandemic humor

This creative energy has also spurred China's folk humor culture. In locked-down sites across the country, social media is spawning a new genre of quarantine humor. On Weibo, WeChat and Douyin, memes of quarantine boredom and stir-craziness proliferate. Netizens record themselves singing the lockdown blues by rescripting classic tunes, fishing from home aquariums, playing mahjong with plastic bags over their heads, playing solo mahjong, playing living-room badminton and choreographing wacky dance moves.

People also showcase their creative flare in donning protective gear and venturing out to neighborhood convenience stores and parks in inflatable costumes of T-Rex dinosaurs, green aliens and Christmas trees. When they run out of face masks, some half-jokingly substitute with bras, sanitary pads, and orange rinds.

As Manya Koetse reports from Beijing, these social media trends allow people to "mock neighbors, their friends or family, or even themselves in the extreme and sometimes silly measures they are taking to avoid the coronavirus." But more than mockery, the very sharing of these memes is a constructive and healing social act. In times of high stress and distress, to sustain these virtual communities is to deliver shared recognition, concern and laughter.

This is not to say that China's epidemic experience is solely lighthearted or affirming. Yet neither does life at epicenters have to be apocalyptic, defined by epic heroes and villains or horror scenarios of collapse and conflict.

Indeed, in other countries that have since become COVID-19 epicenters, social media offer similarly inspiring examples. Frontline health workers in Iran dance in hospital hallways to buoy their patients as well as themselves, and Italians in lockdown sing from their balconies to boost each other's morale – in turn prompting a string of "Italy jiayou" videos from Chinese netizens.

Collectively, these chronicles attest to the idea of pandemic resilience – the possibility that disease outbreaks can be lived through with empathy, ingenuity and sheer human ordinariness.

Belinda Kongis Professor of Asian Studies, Bowdoin College

This article originally appeared on the Conversation. You can read it here.

Since his first hit single "Keep Your Head Up" in 2011, award-winning multi-platinum recording artist Andy Grammer has made a name for himself as the king of the feel-good anthem. From "Good to Be Alive (Hallelujah)" to "Honey, I'm Good" to "Back Home" and more, his positive, upbeat songs have blared on beaches and at backyard barbecues every summer.

So what does a singer who loves to perform in front of live audiences and is known for uplifting music do during an unexpectedly challenging year of global pandemic lockdown?

He goes inward.

Grammer told Upworthy that losing the ability to perform during the pandemic forced him to look at where his self-worth came from. "I thought I would have scored better, to be honest," he says. "Like, 'Oh, I get it from all the important, right places!' And then it's taken all away in one moment, and you're like, 'Oh, nope, I was getting a lot from that.'

"It's kind of cool to break all the way down and then hopefully put myself back together in a way that's a little more solid," he says.

Keep Reading Show less

Since his first hit single "Keep Your Head Up" in 2011, award-winning multi-platinum recording artist Andy Grammer has made a name for himself as the king of the feel-good anthem. From "Good to Be Alive (Hallelujah)" to "Honey, I'm Good" to "Back Home" and more, his positive, upbeat songs have blared on beaches and at backyard barbecues every summer.

So what does a singer who loves to perform in front of live audiences and is known for uplifting music do during an unexpectedly challenging year of global pandemic lockdown?

He goes inward.

Grammer told Upworthy that losing the ability to perform during the pandemic forced him to look at where his self-worth came from. "I thought I would have scored better, to be honest," he says. "Like, 'Oh, I get it from all the important, right places!' And then it's taken all away in one moment, and you're like, 'Oh, nope, I was getting a lot from that.'

"It's kind of cool to break all the way down and then hopefully put myself back together in a way that's a little more solid," he says.

Keep Reading Show less
True

Each year, an estimated 1.8 million people in the United States are affected by cancer — most commonly cancers of the breast, lung, prostate, and blood cancers such as leukemia. While not everyone overcomes the disease, thanks to science, more people are surviving — and for longer — than ever before in history.

We asked three people whose lives have been impacted by cancer to share their stories – how their lives were changed by the disease, and how they're using that experience to change the future of cancer treatments with the hope that ultimately, in the fight against cancer, science will win. Here's what they had to say.

Celine Ryan, 55, engineer database programmer and mother of five from Detroit, MI

Photo courtesy of Celine Ryan

In September 2013, Celine Ryan woke up from a colonoscopy to some traumatic news. Her gastroenterologist showed her a picture of the cancerous mass they found during the procedure.

Ryan and her husband, Patrick, had scheduled a colonoscopy after discovering some unusual bleeding, so the suspicion she could have cancer was already there. Neither of them, however, were quite prepared for the results to be positive -- or for the treatment to begin so soon. Just two days after learning the news, Ryan had surgery to remove the tumor, part of her bladder, and 17 cancerous lymph nodes. Chemotherapy and radiation soon followed.

Ryan's treatment was rigorous – but in December 2014, she got the devastating news that the cancer, once confined to her colon, had spread to her lungs. Her prognosis, they said, was likely terminal.

But rather than give up hope, Ryan sought support from online research, fellow cancer patients and survivors, and her medical team. When she brought up immunotherapy to her oncologist, he quickly agreed it was the best course of action. Ryan's cancer, like a majority of colon and pancreatic cancers, had been caused by a defect on the gene KRAS, which can result in a very aggressive cancer that is virtually "undruggable." According to the medical literature, the relatively smooth protein structure of the KRAS gene meant that designing inhibitors to bind to surface grooves and treat the cancer has been historically difficult. Through her support systems, Ryan discovered an experimental immunotherapy trial at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, MD., and called them immediately to see if she was eligible. After months of trying to determine whether she was a suitable candidate for the experimental treatment, Ryan was finally accepted.

The treatment, known as tumor-infiltrating lymphocyte therapy, or TIL, is a testament to how far modern science has evolved. With this therapy, doctors remove a tumor and harvest special immune cells that are found naturally in the tumor. Doctors then grow the cells in a lab over the next several weeks with a protein that promotes rapid TIL growth – and once the cells number into the billions, they are infused back into the patient's body to fight the cancer. On April 1, 2015, Ryan had her tumor removed at the NIH. Two months later, she went inpatient for four weeks to have the team "wash out" her immune system with chemotherapy and infuse the cells – all 148 billion of them – back into her body.

Six weeks after the infusion, Ryan and Patrick went back for a follow-up appointment – and the news they got was stunning: Not only had no new tumors developed, but the six existing tumors in her lungs had shrunk significantly. Less than a year after her cell infusion, in April 2016, the doctors told Ryan news that would have been impossible just a decade earlier: Thanks to the cell infusion, Ryan was now considered NED – no evaluable disease. Her body was cancer-free.

Ryan is still NED today and continuing annual follow-up appointments at the NIH, experiencing things she never dreamed she'd be able to live to see, such as her children's high school and college graduations. She's also donating her blood and cells to the NIH to help them research other potential cancer treatments. "It was an honor to do so," Ryan said of her experience. "I'm just thrilled, and I hope my experience can help a lot more people."

Patrice Lee, PhD, VP of Pharmacology, Toxicology and Exploratory Development at Pfizer

Photo courtesy of Patrice Lee

Patrice Lee got into scientific research in an unconventional way – through the late ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau.

Lee never met Cousteau but her dreams of working with him one day led her to pursue a career in science. Initially, Lee completed an undergraduate degree in marine biology; eventually, her interests changed and she decided to get a dual doctoral degree in physiology and toxicology at Duke University. She now works at Pfizer's R&D site in Boulder, CO (formerly Array BioPharma), leading a group of scientists who determine the safety and efficacy of new oncology drugs.

"Scientists focused on drug discovery and development in the pharmaceutical industry are deeply committed to inventing new therapies to meet unmet needs," Lee says, describing her field of work. "We're driven to achieve new medicines and vaccines as quickly as possible without sacrificing safety."

Among the drugs Lee has helped develop during her career, including cancer therapies, she says around a dozen are currently in development, while nine have received FDA approval — an incredible accomplishment as many scientists spend their careers without seeing their drug make it to market. Lee's team is particularly interested in therapies for brain metastases — something that Lee says is a largely unmet need in cancer research, and something her team is working on from a variety of angles. "Now that we've had rapid success with mRNA vaccine technology, we hope to explore what the future holds when applying this technology to cancers," Lee says.

But while evaluating potential cancer therapies is a professional passion of Lee's, it's also a mission that's deeply personal. "I'm also a breast cancer survivor," she says. "So I've been on the other side of things and have participated in a clinical trial."

However, seeing how melanoma therapies that she helped develop have affected other real-life cancer patients, she says, has been a highlight of her career. "We had one therapy that was approved for patients with BRAF-mutant metastatic melanoma," Lee recalls. "Our team in Boulder was graced by a visit from a patient that had benefited from these drugs that we developed. It was a very special moment for the entire team."

None of these therapies would be available, Lee says without rigorous science behind it: "Facts come from good science. Facts will drive the development of new drugs, and that's what will help patients."

Chiuying "Cynthia" Kuk (they/them) MS, 34, third-year medical student at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine

Photo courtesy of Cynthia Kuk

Cynthia Kuk was just 10 years old when they had a conversation that would change their life forever.

"My mother, who worked as a translator for the government at the time, had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and after her chemotherapy treatments she would get really sick," Kuk, who uses they/them pronouns, recalls. "When I asked my dad why mom was puking so much, he said it was because of the medicine she was taking that would help her get better."

Kuk's response was immediate: "That's so stupid! Why would a medicine make you feel worse instead of better? When I'm older, I want to create medicine that won't make people sick like that."

Nine years later, Kuk traveled from their native Hong Kong to the United States to do exactly that. Kuk enrolled in a small, liberal arts college for their Bachelor's degree, and then four years later started a PhD program in cancer research. Although Kuk's mother was in remission from her cancer at the time, Kuk's goal was the same as it had been as a 10-year-old watching her suffer through chemotherapy: to design a better cancer treatment, and change the landscape of cancer research forever.

Since then, Kuk's mission has changed slightly.

"My mom's cancer relapsed in 2008, and she ended up passing away about five years after that," Kuk says. "After my mom died, I started having this sense of urgency. Cancer research is such that you work for twenty years, and at the end of it you might have a fancy medication that could help people, but I wanted to help people now." With their mother still at the forefront of their mind, Kuk decided to quit their PhD program and enter medical school.

Now, Kuk plans to pursue a career in emergency medicine – not only because they are drawn to the excitement of the emergency room, but because the ER is a place where the most marginalized people tend to seek care.

"I have a special interest in the LGBTQ+ population, as I identify as queer and nonbinary," says Kuk. "A lot of people in this community and other marginalized communities access care through the ER and also tend to avoid medical care since there is a history of mistreatment and judgement from healthcare workers. How you carry yourself as a doctor, your compassion, that can make a huge difference in someone's care."

In addition to making a difference in the lives of LGBTQ+ patients, Kuk wants to make a difference in the lives of patients with cancer as well, like their mother had.

"We've diagnosed patients in the Emergency Department with cancer before," Kuk says. "I can't make cancer good news but how you deliver bad news and the compassion you show could make a world of difference to that patient and their family."

During their training, Kuk advocates for patients by delivering compassionate and inclusive care, whether they happen to have cancer or not. In addition to emphasizing their patient's pronouns and chosen names, they ask for inclusive social and sexual histories as well as using gender neutral language. In doing this, they hope to make medicine as a whole more accessible for people who have been historically pushed aside.

"I'm just one person, and I can't force everyone to respect you, if you're marginalized," Kuk says. "But I do want to push for a culture where people appreciate others who are different from them."