Photo: iStock
Medical research often involves international collaboration. Photo: iStock

When the coronavirus that causes Covid-19 first broke out in China, overseas Chinese attempted to buy up all the face-mask inventory worldwide to ship back to China, without considering local people’s needs. Then when the pandemic spread around the globe, politicians started to point fingers at other countries, blaming one another for not doing the responsible thing. 

I used to think diplomatic issues were beyond my concern. But then, when xenophobic sentiment against Chinese and other Asian-Americans started to emerge, that really worried me.

I had mixed feelings when I read an article in The New York Times titled “Chinese-Americans, Facing Abuse, Unite to Aid Hospitals in Coronavirus Battle.” They are innocent, yet victimized. Chinese-Americans are facing the hardship that all of us face. Many are devoting their lives to make even the smallest contribution to the communities to which they belong. But at the same time, they feel threatened, and at risk. This saddens me.

I almost had the impulse to fight back. As a person of Chinese descent, I wanted to argue that we are not “virus.” We are valuable members of American society. 

I was lucky enough to have wise and candid friends to talk to. One of them pulled me back: “Being defensive is only going to make the situation worse.” That’s right. But countries are shutting borders. Everyone is being defensive. What’s wrong with being defensive? He then asked me a question that made me think: “What’s the root cause of the issue?” 

It took me days before a moment of enlightenment struck me. On April 14, President Donald Trump announced that the US would halt funding of the World Health Organization. Shortly thereafter, the presidents of the National Academy of Science, National Academy of Engineering and National Academy of Medicine set forth a joint statement, urging the Trump administration to reconsider his proposal.

The principal reason given in the statement was “helping to curb the pandemic in other countries undoubtedly benefits the United States as well, as we cannot begin to fully recover here until the threat of the pandemic subsides in other nations.”

What a moment of truth. We are not fighting against other nations in this war on Covid-19. Rather, we should fight hand-in-hand with other nations in this war against the pandemic. 

Evolution away from tribalism

In uncivilized days, humans used to treat every other person outside his or her social group, or tribe, as a potential enemy. They were living on the edge, often fighting one another for food and territory. As tribes evolved, they began to trust and collaborate with one another, and the human race started to prosper.

Thousands of years went by. Tribes coalesced and unified into larger, mostly ethnic territories. The concepts of villages, cities, states and nations gradually emerged. Our ancestors may have come from different towns or geographical regions, carrying different customs and norms. Yet the belief in a common identity bonded them together.

The resulting scale of unity, peace and collaboration created unprecedented advancement in all aspects of human development. Art, philosophy, science and technology flourished, which enriched every human being’s life. Yet at this moment, we are still confined by the boundaries set forth by each nation’s borders and ideologies. Calling those who are outside our boundaries “them” instills defensiveness, protectionism, and exclusion.

As we can see, the sense of differentiation between “us” versus “them” is the root cause of divisions and distrust. Luckily, as humanity progresses, the scope of “us” has kept broadening.

I believe the unifying trend will continue. Think of what the process of unity has brought us: we, as a whole, have attained so many remarkable achievements, and our lives have been enriched in both material and immaterial ways, to an extent that was once unthinkable. If we could knock down the mental barrier of nations, what miracles would we be able to create?

To me, the pandemic made a great revelation, that humanity came from the same Ark, that we are still on the same Ark, and we are one.

Evelyn Mei is a Senior Product Strategy Manager at a technology company in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is a 2015 Stanford graduate.