Opinion: Air-5 and elbow bump — what the coronavirus outbreak has taught us

The COVID-19 pandemic is not only a challenge to our current medical technology and healthcare system but a test of our humanity.

“You should go buy face masks right now and stock up on food and toilet paper before everything runs out.” This is my dad, calling me at 1 a.m. from China after hearing about the first confirmed case of coronavirus in America. “You need to take this seriously! Stop going to parties and stop hugging people. Give them an air-five or an elbow bump or something.”

The COVID-19 virus first appeared in Wuhan, China in December 2019, and new cases and deaths occurred every day because of its pervasive transmission speed. Within a month of the outbreak, the Chinese government ordered an unprecedented quarantine of the entire country: public transportation was shut down; individuals’ health conditions were closely monitored; people who refused to wear masks in public could be arrested for risking the health of others. National news and online media kept the general public updated of newly identified cases. The Chinese New Year break was extended and many people in China have not stepped out of their homes for more than two months. Under these national measures, the number of new cases in China, which once increased exponentially, has remained low for the past few days. Many health officials believe that if there is no new case appearing in the next 28 days, China has won the battle with COVID-19.

Certainly, not everyone supports the somewhat extreme regulations the Chinese government implemented. Many believe that it is a violation of human rights to restrict people’s access to the outside world. However, others also hold the opinion, which I personally agree with, that desperate times call for desperate measures. A nation-wide quarantine is the only way to beat this epidemic in a country with such a dense population and inadequate hygiene facilities in rural areas. I would credit the Chinese government for their strong leadership and for not being afraid of the painful cost associating with implementing the policies when they face an infectious disease of this scale. That is why although my family is in the center of where the COVID-19 started, they are more concerned about me, an international student living in a developed country equipped with one of the most advanced medical systems but would never be able to pass any national health policies as quickly and on the same scale as China. Thus, we are relying on the general public to be well informed and prepared.

By March 9, 423 people had been diagnosed with COVID-19 and 19 people had died, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Only with the extreme surge of cases arising has the situation begun to be addressed by officials. Without proper guidance, the overwhelmed public reacted to the situation with anxiety. Many people started panic shopping and others, including me, began to wear masks to protect ourselves from potential exposures.

However, what masks cannot protect us from, and especially Asians from, are xenophobia and racism. Asians receive accusations like “you and your people brought coronavirus here” from strangers. It is rather ridiculous to hear that people today would still associate ethnicity with the transmission of an infectious disease in this borderless world. I never thought similar incidents would happen to me until I was called a “drama queen” once for greeting people with an elbow bump instead of a handshake.

Many people say that young adults like us with no prior health conditions should not worry about coronavirus at all. However, I would argue that it is still crucial for us to be educated about the situation and follow the recommended instructions as we can easily act as transmission mediums between groups who are at high risks.

As an institution, UC Berkeley has been actively updating students and staff about the latest situations on campus, posting guidelines, and adjusting the academic calendars to best protect students and faculty. While in-person classes are suspended and many midterms are either postponed or changed to take-home formats, it is not a time of celebration but a time of caution. I sincerely urge Berkeley students to avoid crowds and closely monitor their own health conditions. In addition, please show respect to people around you regardless of how they choose to react to the outbreak.

The COVID-19 epidemic is not only a challenge to our current medical technology and healthcare system but more a test to humanity and social inclusion. We are all in this together and I believe that trust and collaboration are the only ways for us to overcome this challenge.


Helen Wang is a third-year economics student at UC Berkeley.