Students’ families, friends in China ride out coronavirus epidemic By Esther Animalu

White medical masks obscure what were once smiling faces. Streets that were previously bustling with life are now stagnant and stale with fear. Planes that used to soar high above the mountains are grounded, keeping the skies eerily quiet.

China, a hotspot of industry, innovation and tourism, has rapidly morphed into the epicenter of a global pandemic.

The echoes of a growing panic span across borders. Residents of several Chinese provinces remain bound to their homes, attempting to avoid a new nightmare: exposure to the coronavirus. Daily life is at a virtual standstill.

The 2019 novel coronavirus has caused an outbreak of respiratory illness first detected in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China. According to the latest World Health Organization data, authorities in 32 countries and territories have reported more than 78,000 cases of novel coronavirus since Dec. 31.

The vast majority of cases have been rooted in mainland China. The epidemic is a major public health emergency, with the illness being highly contagious and causing a range of symptoms. Due to the virus’s long incubation period, authorities have struggled to control the spread of disease.

At the University of Miami, Chinese students make up the largest population of international students on campus, and many students at UM have direct ties to Chinese provinces and cities.

Now, these students are sharing their stories to shed light on one of the darkest corners of the human condition.


46,607 confirmed cases

Freshman Yuchen Guo fears the worst for Wuhan, the city at the center of the coronavirus outbreak.

“In January, they told me about this virus in Wuhan,” Guo said. “But at that time they were celebrating the spring festival, so they weren’t really focused on it. But now, it’s getting worse and worse.”

Guo said her relatives have friends who contracted the virus. Guo is from the Yunnan province, but her parents were born in Wuhan. Her cousins, aunts and uncles still live there.

Guo said she fears the worst for her family in Wuhan after SARS– Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome– killed nearly 800 people in 2002-2003, mostly in China and Hong Kong. SARS, another type of coronavirus, originated in China.

The new coronavirus, 2019-nCov, has already exceeded that death toll.

“There are some experts that said this virus is similar to SARS,” Guo said. “I’m worried that it will kill a lot of people. I’m really worried about my family and also about the economy.”

As he teaches his advertising classes at the University of Miami, Cong Li, associate dean for graduate studies in the School of Communication, is harboring similar concerns the well-being of his family and friends back home in Wuhan.

Movers pack up a family’s apartment in Hong Kong, where a UM student's parents lived for 20 years.

While he does not know anyone personally who has died or been hospitalized due to the illness, Li said the city has been under lockdown and people have been advised to stay indoors for days at a time, which has not been the ideal situation for his loved ones.

“It was unexpected; it kind of just happened,” Li said. “No one is in a comfortable position right now. I can only imagine how hard it is to stay indoors for 20 something days without going out at all. That’s rough.”

Also in Wuhan, one of Jihan “Doria” Qu’s best friends has the coronavirus.

Qu, a freshman psychology and gender studies major, stays in touch with her friend through texts, but she wishes there was more she could do to help.

“She is hopeless right now,” Qu said. “There is the feeling that I might lose her forever.”

She also shared concerns that hospitals in Wuhan are running out of space and other resources, including the facial masks and protective suits that doctors wear. As a result of these shortages, doctors sometimes have to wear trash bags, Qu said.

But despite the overabundance of patients, hospitals in China are lonely places. People infected with the coronavirus are quarantined, cut off from everyone except for medical staff.

“My friend is living in the hospital by herself because her family could not get in,” Qu said.


1,271 confirmed cases

Recent UM alum Chen Chen is from the Henan province, located north of Wuhan. He said his homeland is under strict quarantine as a result of the coronavirus.

Although none of his family members has fallen ill, they are largely confined to their house.

A permit is now required to enter commercial buildings in parts of China.

Each person is allowed to go out every three days, but they must have their temperatures taken and recorded at a government health station when they leave and return, Chen said.

Chen is in communication with a friend from Henan who traveled to Wuhan to celebrate the Chinese New Year. Since he thought he would be home in a few days, he left food and water for his cat at home.

Now the friend, who remains stuck in Wuhan, the epicenter of the virus, said he is not sure if he will contract the disease. He is also terribly worried about the fate of his cat, Chen said.


989 confirmed cases

Life in the Anhui province is also under siege.

Located next to Hubei, the province that contains Wuhan, Anhui has harbored hundreds of cases of coronavirus. As a result of the disease, freshman Manhui Ghu said students have not been permitted to go back to school and only medical personnel are allowed to work.

And the effects of the coronavirus outbreak are evident from far outside Ghu’s home province.

Ghu said she is eager to go home for summer break, but is unsure if the coronavirus will keep her out of China. The epidemic has already prevented one of her friends from flying back home for spring break, as most flights into China have been canceled.

“I just hope the conditions get better so everything can go back to normal and I can safely see my family,” Ghu said.


575 confirmed cases

In Hubei’s neighboring Chongqing province, Hanran Yang’s parents are taking every precaution to stay safe, which gives the sophomore public relations major some comfort as she studies so many miles away from home.

“The only thing that I really care about is if my family is safe,” Yang said. “I talk to them on the phone every day to ask them about the situation.”

Yang’s family remains in quarantine along with another family on the same property. She said each person can leave the house for only one hour per day.

“They are confident that this shall pass, thanks to the government regulations to control the outbreak,” said Yang.


399 confirmed cases

For some people, life outside of Wuhan is beginning to return to normal.

“My mom, an accountant, is still at home, and she was supposed to be back to work two weeks ago,” said junior Kate Sun. “But most people are back to work in Beijing.”

Although it is a three-hour flight from Wuhan, many people fear going outside in Beijing, Sun Said.

People in Beijing wear protective suits while in public, aiming to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

“I know many students are doing online classes instead of going to school,” Sun said, adding that her family is safe, but she is still scared.

Jiapei Sun, a 20-year-old freshman finance major, expressed similar fears.

“It’s so weird that everything here is so normal, but back home my parents can barely leave the house,” Sun said. “But they’ve stayed positive throughout this situation. I admire them for that.”

But Sun said not everyone in Beijing has maintained the same attitude. Some of her friends in Beijing are critical of the government’s response to the coronavirus crisis.

“I know a lot of people are wary of the Chinese authorities and don’t think they are doing a good job with containing the virus,” Sun said. “The whole situation is terrible, and I really hope it is contained soon.”


335 confirmed cases

Mikayla Kaptzan, a junior majoring in media management, also expressed concern over how the Chinese government is handling the epidemic. The authorities have come under fire for allegedly failing to disclose information to the public.

“They only report what they have to report,” said Kaptzan. “The Chinese government will give information when it is required, like when it is leaked in another country. But they won’t give out information that makes them look bad. There’s just such a lack of information.”

Although Kaptzan is a U.S. citizen, her family lives in Shanghai, a major metropolitan city that is several hours away from Wuhan. As a result of the epidemic, Kaptzan’s mother has been unable to return home. Her mother was on vacation in New York when the outbreak began and has not been allowed to fly home since then.

Sam Luo, also a student at UM, was in the nearby city of Wuxi this past summer. Since the outbreak of the coronavirus, the community has been at a virtual standstill, said the motion pictures and economics major.

“It’s just like a war,” Luo said. “People can’t go out of the community; each one has a manned door. Each family can only have one person go out a day to get groceries and supplies.”

But there have been signs of hope.

“Our factories have started working again,” Luo said.” Some workers, if they’re not sick, they can go back to the factory.”

Despite this development, fear of the virus is still at a fever pitch.

“People do not know how they get this virus; they don’t know if it might be their cats or dogs,” Luo said. “Some of these people just kill their pets. Dogs and cats are not the effect, but people kill them. Then a few days later, they wonder why they killed their pets.”

Luo said his family has escaped infection thus far and that he tries not to worry as long as they stay inside. They use WeChat, a popular app messenger, to communicate, and in the last few days, his family has had some good news.

“In my town, spring has come,” Luo said. “For the first time, people are saying spring has sprung.”


169 confirmed cases

“About 1,000 people in my hometown are infected,” said Rui Zhu, a freshman from Hangzhou, a city located 474 miles east of Wuhan.

Zhu said that in the area where his family is quarantined, only one person per family can go out once a day to get supplies for the whole household.

“My family stays at home, and that is safe,” Zhu said. “I feel a lot of anxiety.”


84 confirmed cases

A senior music major from Hong Kong, who asked to remain anonymous, was eager to speak about her grandparents Pan Li Ke and Kong Chang Zhou, who are both in their 70s. The couple is riding out the virus in the Guangdong province in the south of China.

“They’re not sick,” said the 21-year-old UM student, “but it does worry me if they were to come into contact with the virus. I’m worried that it would be bad.”

Her retired grandparents live in Foshan, a city of roughly seven million residents. Since the outbreak of the coronavirus, they both wear medical masks, the student said.

The mother of a UM student wears a facial mask in a Hong Kong airport.

Unlike other provinces that have strict requirements for their residents to stay in their homes, residents of Foshan have the option to go to work, school or perform regular activities. However, because of the retirees’ age, the possibility of coming into contact with the coronavirus has essentially forced them to stay inside, said the student who is originally from Ap Lei Chau Island, near Hong Kong.

“Foshan is pretty much on lockdown,” she said. “It’s really obstructed my grandparents’ way of living.”

The student said that it has been difficult for her grandparents to adjust to life indoors. The last time she spoke to them on the phone, she said they told her they were bored of staying inside all day.

“All they’ve been doing now is sitting at home and watching TV, although they’re lucky they live in a comfortable space,” she said. “I can’t imagine for other Chinese people who don’t live in a nice place, what being inside for that long would do to them.”


76 confirmed cases

Sophomore Jiarui He said the coronavirus has forced her friends and family in the northwestern Xinjiang province to do most of their work online.

“My family is good; my friends are good,” said He, an electronic media major. “Things may be a a little bit different now, but they are good.”

With her family not in immediate danger, she said she is going on with her daily activities, which include teaching Mandarin to local children.

“I am focusing on teaching and studying here at the university,” he said. “I plan on hopefully going back to China this summer to see my family.”


10 confirmed cases

SiHui Zhao, a senior advertising management major, said coronavirus has not affected her family, but it did not spare her mother’s colleagues, one of whom is hospitalized.

The neighborhood is under strict quarantine. In Zhao’s community, families can send someone out to run errands once every three days.

Zhao, who uses WeChat to stay in touch with her family, worries that her loved ones will become infected.

“I tell them they must wear a mask when they go out,” said Zhao, who has plans to return home in the summer.

Massiel Leyva, Katherine Begg, Parker Gimbel, Essien Duke, Treasure Wilson, Xuejing Li, Nicole Bozkurt, Isabella Popadiuk, Maraya Rivera, Emmalyse Brownstein and Victoria Kline contributed to this report.

Design by Rebecca Goddard

Graphic by Julia Sanbe