Sarah Zhang on the Coronavirus, Uncertainty and a Chinese American Outlook

Emily Hughes
Sarah Zhang | Courtesy of Sarah Zhang

Sarah Zhang, a staff writer for The Atlantic and winner of a 2018 AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Silver Award, has been spending much of her time lately writing about the COVID-19 pandemic. Like other science writers dealing with this historically important story, she has been sifting through huge amounts of information, often conflicting and uncertain, trying to make sense of the devastating disease and its impact on public health. As she did in her AAAS Kavli award-winning work — in which she visited a facility in the Guangdong province of China where researchers have been tinkering with monkey brains to better understand the most severe forms of autism — Zhang brought her Chinese American background to bear on her reporting about an intriguing aspect of the COVID-19 story in the United States.

In a recent Atlantic piece, “Chinese Americans Have Seen This Before,” Zhang wrote how the coronavirus outbreak in America “feels eerily familiar in a deeply personal way” for many Chinese Americans. “First-generation immigrants in particular, many of whom still have close personal ties to China, followed the situation there closely and recognized the virus as a serious threat before it registered for the rest of America,” Zhang wrote. “Now the social isolation, the overwhelmed hospitals, the equipment shortages, the deaths—all of this is a replay of what loved ones in China went through” earlier. Emily Hughes, communications associate for the AAAS Kavli awards programs, spoke recently with Zhang about her Atlantic piece and how she has been covering the COVID-19 story.

Q. What made you first interested in writing about the Chinese American perspective on the pandemic?

A. It started with me talking to a bunch of my friends and my family. We all had this experience where our parents were really concerned about the coronavirus before we were.

One of the things about being in the U.S. is that China can feel so different, not only because it’s really far away geographically. The Chinese internet and the American English language internet just don’t really intersect. Chinese people aren’t on Twitter or Facebook.

Having a slight window into that, I knew that there was a lot going on that wasn’t necessarily being covered. There were so many efforts for Chinese Americans here who were trying to find personal protective equipment. They kind of built up these networks because just a few months ago they were literally doing the opposite thing trying to get PPE donated to friends and family in China.

I heard a lot of experiences of this strange reversal with people here worrying about people in China and then the other way around. And I just thought that was really compelling on a human level.

Q. You grew up in a Chinese American family. Have you seen that perspective reflected in your own parents?

A. My parents were going to Costco back in February. My brother and I were thinking “it isn’t that dire is it?” but of course they were right. My family in China mailed my parents facemasks, who in turn mailed some to me.

Q. Do you feel that a lot of Chinese Americans are sharing this experience?

A. I wouldn’t want to speak for everyone, but I think there has been a general experience. As someone who is writing about science, I paid very close attention to what was happening in Wuhan back in January. I think most science journalists were.

It’s hard to have a sense of what the texture of life is like living under a pandemic. And I think just because China was a little bit closer to my imagination than other people’s, I spent a lot of time thinking about the human element to life in lock down. Thinking about that has informed my reporting a lot.

Medical face masks being prepared for shipment. | Shutterstock

Q. How difficult has it been to get a good picture of what is happening in China?

A. It has been really dismaying to see the U.S. and China retaliate back and forth by kicking out each other’s journalists. The on-the-ground stories from Wuhan by international journalists were some of the clearest and most vivid warnings of the seriousness of this virus. Unfortunately, we'll probably be living in a world in which we understand less about what is happening in China.

Q. The President has made quite a few comments about the virus coming from a Chinese lab. Have you seen an impact within Chinese American communities because of these comments?

A. I've been thinking a lot about what we think of as "the face" of COVID-19. Early on, if we were asked to picture someone sick with the coronavirus, we probably all would have pictured an Asian person. I remember traveling in Europe for work in January with a mild cough, which at the time, I thought could not possibly be COVID-19 because I hadn't been anywhere near China. I feel less sure about that now. But I nevertheless knew that anyone was going to look at my Asian face and heard my cough was going to assume things. And if I wore a facemask and looked Asian, they were definitely going to assume things.

In the U.S. you had newspapers running COVID-19 stories with photos of Chinatown and Asian Americans wearing masks, even when the stories were not about Chinatown or patients of Asian descent. This probably reinforced the feeling that the virus was distant and foreign, even as it was gaining a foothold in the U.S. Of course, I think "the face" of COVID-19 has changed now, as the disease has devastated Europe and then the U.S., especially in black and Latino communities.

Q. Have you or your family faced any discrimination here in the U.S. because of misinformation around the pandemic?

A. I haven't personally experienced any overt discrimination, but I also don't leave the house much these days. There are online trolls who seem particularly hung up on my ethnicity, though that unfortunately is not completely new either. That said, I do think being an immigrant has shaped my reporting in ways that are more subtle but also more all-encompassing. Being an immigrant feels often like being the outsider, and being a journalist often means being the outsider trying to observe others. Every immigrant has also had the experience of realizing the norms of their immigrant family are not the norms of the rest of America. Defaults are not the same defaults everywhere. Moving between two different worlds forces you to reckon with that.

Q. Has remote reporting hindered your reporting? Or changed the way you reported something?

A. Like everyone else, I’ve been stuck in my apartment for the past couple of months. I will say one of the things about being a science reporter where you’re covering stories all over the place is that you spend a lot of time on the phone anyway. I’m still spending a lot of time on the phone, but of course that does have an extra level of complication now.

I think a lot about what’s going on in hospitals right now, and how that is just so inaccessible to not only the journalists, but even to family members of the patients. And if you are able to report in person, a lot of the things that you would do to set someone at ease you can’t really do anymore. If you’re wearing a face mask it’s really hard to convey your expressions.

On the other hand, because there’s this feeling that we’re all going through something together, it makes it easier to talk in some ways. Everyone you talk to has a story to share. Everyone has had their life upended in some way. Everyone has a story they will probably be telling their children someday.

Illustration of SARS-Cov-2 coronavirus binding to ACE-2 receptors on a human cell. | Shutterstock

Q. What has been the most frustrating part about covering the pandemic?

A. I think it’s how much we want to have answers and how little we know about the science of the virus. There are so many questions I want answered. Like how does the virus spread? How deadly is it really? These are just questions that are impossible to answer right now.

It’s made me think a lot more about how to convey uncertainty. Which is a part of science, and it’s always been a part of science, but I think right now it has more direct, real life impacts.

Q. Have there been rewarding aspects as well?

A. It’s been a catalyst for very good conversations. While writing my story about Chinese Americans, I ended up reconnecting with a lot of old friends and classmates that I hadn’t talked to in a long time. They wanted to share their experiences or just wanted to say: “I was dealing with that too.” I think there’s something about this situation that makes people want to reach out.

Q. How have you coped with the huge amount of information and the rapid release of pre-print papers and non-embargoed journal reports?

A. That has been one of the real challenges – this firehose of information coming out very fast and sometimes it’s contradictory. The Atlantic is not a science-focused publication, so we’ve mostly decided that we’re not going to cover every single preprint. Time is always of the essence in journalism, but a coronavirus study should be treated like any other paper – the more extraordinary the claim, the more outside comment you need.

Q. What are some of the messages you feel are important to convey about the pandemic?

A. I do think that emphasizing scientific uncertainty is the main message. I also get a lot of questions from people wondering what precautions they should take. There are things we can do that can probably help you reduce your risk. Such as washing hands frequently, sanitizing surfaces, wearing masks. But what is the risk-reward ratio? A helpful analogy I’ve heard is that everything we do is like stacking slices of Swiss cheese. There are holes in each slice, but if you layer a lot of them─ if you do a lot of different things ─ together they can really reduce your risk.

Q. What are some of the reporting challenges reporters will have going forward in their coronavirus coverage?

A. We have so many questions that are unanswered. This isn’t specific to science journalism anymore, but it’s beginning to affect so many different parts of our lives. Things that happen are going to have unintended consequences. It is important for journalists to keep an open mind to what we don’t know. There are known unknowns but there may also be unknown unknowns in the future. Journalism is about finding answers, and sometimes what we come up with is that we don’t have an answer.