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Commentary COVID-19 in Maryland

Del. Lily Qi: A Global Pandemic Calls for Greater Local Engagement and Giving

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention photo.

If the 2018 election was a turning point for the local Chinese American community’s political engagement, then the 2020 global pandemic is a turning point for our community’s local giving.

Since the outbreak of COVID-19 and the state of emergency, Chinese Americans around the country have jumped to action by sourcing and donating an impressive amount of personal protective equipment and medical supplies to help their communities fight the pandemic.

Locally, numerous professional and community groups and even individuals have all stepped up to secure large quantities of masks, face shields and other supplies from China, the only country with ready supplies at the time. Chinese American medical scientists and doctors quickly organized themselves to raise money among their peers. Leveraging their expertise and connections, they screened and secured multiple shipments while navigating bureaucracies and shifting regulations and guidelines of both countries. Some gathered masks from friends and tapped their families in China while others raised funds and donated meals to the frontline workers.

Del. Lily Qi (D-Montgomery)

Their enthusiasm was contagious. In a matter of weeks, hundreds of thousands of masks and other PPE have been donated to dozens of local hospitals, medical centers, senior facilities and other places of need.

At a time when our entire country was scrambling for supplies and the states and locales were forced to compete with one another, the Chinese American community’s quick actions played a significant role in our collective fight to slow the spread and save lives.

Yet our birthplace association also haunts us. We are not only blamed for the spread of the virus, but even our community’s good deeds can be cast in a suspicious light.

COVID-19 has been an emotional roller-coaster for our community.

We were concerned at first about our families and relatives in China, then our own health as the virus spread, and even personal safety due to the anti-Asian hysteria and “Chinese virus” finger-pointing fueled by the president and his administration. The initial surge of harassment and violence against Chinese and Asian Americans has led to a disturbing spike in gun-buying in our community that reflects our deep insecurity as Americans.

When there is mistrust, everything can be cast in a negative light and looked upon with suspicion. With concerns over Chinese government’s “donation diplomacy,” our community’s local donation efforts risk being lumped with international politics, which can be dangerous in a public health crisis and insulting to a community that is beginning to get excited about contributing locally. But unfortunately, some of our political leaders are more interested in trading barbs than saving lives.

The immigrant Chinese community is still at the early stages of shaping our identity as Americans and learning to integrate with the larger communities culturally, socially and politically. Just like the 2018 mid-term election unleashed unprecedent new energy in political engagement, COVID-19 has ushered in a new era of local giving.

Regardless of global politics — and there is enough blame to go around in both countries — our community’s spirit of local giving deserves nurturing, not mockery. We are not responsible for the virus spread nor the missteps or rhetoric by government leaders on either side of the Pacific. Rightfully, we are focusing on doing our part to get our country and communities back on track because our lives depend on that.

This pandemic brings to sharper focus the ongoing tension between the U.S. and China that presents a unique challenge to our existence in this country. No other immigrant community in the history of this nation — including previous waves of Chinese immigrants — has had to confront the reality that the country they came to for opportunity now feels increasingly threatened for technological and economic dominance by the country they left.

For Chinese Americans, this is our new normal and there is no playbook.

But a crisis is no time to hide under the rock. This is a time to engage, not alienate. America can only win if we know how to leverage the contributions of all Americans, including — maybe especially — those from other countries.

For immigrant communities, the best antidote to global tension and national division is fighting for our place here and giving back locally. Like the transcontinental railway completed 151 years ago this month, Chinese Americans have responded to the call to service at every critical juncture in our nation’s history. We won’t be missing in action this time, not because we need to prove we are Americans, but because we are.


The writer, a Democrat, represents Montgomery County’s District 15 in the House of Delegates.


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Del. Lily Qi: A Global Pandemic Calls for Greater Local Engagement and Giving