As calls for social distancing have kept us physically removed from one another during the COVID-19 pandemic, the world has somehow never felt smaller. Feelings of anxiety and fear are powerful forces, but they are no match for the remarkable compassion and kindness sparked by the crisis. That spirit recently prompted members of WashU’s China Alumni Network to organize an appeal for much-needed medical supplies and funds to the Washington University Medical Campus.
When the city of Wuhan, China, weathered its coronavirus peak this past February, the China Alumni Network stepped up to help relieve the alarming shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE). In just 24 hours, members contributed around $30,000 to send masks to the area. But that was only the beginning. With the situation improving in Wuhan and worsening in the United States, the group decided to direct its attention — and generosity — toward the St. Louis area. And so began an extraordinary coordination of efforts across countries and the university, led by network president Kevin Xu, EMBA ’14.
Members of the network’s alumni committee started to strategize about the fundraising campaign in March and enlisted the advice of several alumni and parents with expertise in medical supply chain management. The committee initially intended to procure medical-grade face masks in China and have them shipped to St. Louis. However, they quickly realized their original plan would be hamstrung by the logistics of international transport as well as the uneven quality and rapidly fluctuating prices of PPE on the Chinese market. So the group switched course, opting to buy disposable face masks from a Chinese vendor based in the United States that was recommended by a WashU parent in China.
To promote the fundraiser, the network primarily relied on WeChat, China’s souped-up answer to Facebook. After posting information to the network’s public WeChat account, the alumni committee reached out to various network subgroups, each of which boasts hundreds of members affiliated by city and school. A total of 256 alumni, parents and friends rallied to contribute more than $64,000 in less than a week. Nearly $34,000 of that sum went toward the purchase of 42,000 earloop face masks, with the vendor chipping in a few thousand extras for a grand total of 45,000.
On April 10, 75 cases of masks were delivered to BJC HealthCare, Washington University’s clinical health-care partner. The network placed the remaining $31,000 into a newly established fund, where it is being used to buy an additional 48,000 isolation masks for the Medical Campus community, including Barnes-Jewish Hospital.
By now, stories of PPE shortages across the country are all too common. “Having an adequate supply of protective gear has been a huge concern for the Medical Campus,” says Paul Scheel Jr., MD, associate vice chancellor for clinical affairs at the School of Medicine and CEO of Washington University Physicians. “This gift helps ensure the safety of our health-care providers. It also shows us that whether we are in China or St. Louis, we are all in this together.”
It is a testament to the university’s personal impact that China Alumni Network members mobilized so quickly and successfully to support the WashU medical community in St. Louis. Whether through bake sales or GoFundMe pages, fundraising is foundational to American culture, but it is a language the Chinese people are only beginning to learn, Xu says.
Like many Chinese alumni, Xu takes great pride in his connection to the university. “WashU brought me knowledge and also real lifelong friendships,” he says. “The university has done a wonderful job of caring for alumni and parents in China, and we felt it was important to return the favor.”