To Separate or To Engage?

Reflections during my country’s great war against the coronavirus epidemic
MAR 2020
Qingyang
X.
Operations Research Center

In China, each year begins twice. First on January 1 and once again on the traditional Lunar New Year (this year’s date: January 25, 2020). The days in between the two New Years are a somewhat peculiar time – though New Year has dawned in other places of the world, in China, students are taking their final exams and workers are making their last efforts to achieve the annual targets, all possessed by the fervent anticipation to reunite with their families back in their hometowns by the Lunar New Year. For Chinese students studying in the US, however, it is time to pack our luggage and leave home for the new semester.

It was during this peculiar time in January 2020 when a largely unexpected epidemic broke out in central China – first in relative obscurity but very soon arousing great anxiety and panic – the novel coronavirus (COVID-19). The jovial spirit, which normally graces every corner in China during this season of mass migration and family reunion, was abruptly replaced by another word: quarantine (隔离), which in Chinese literally means “separate and stay away”.

As we grew physically more estranged, our anxious nerves were closely tied to and tightened by the invisible web of the Internet, disseminating the latest news of the epidemic at the speed of light. The climbing numbers of newly diagnosed, deceased, and cured patients. The quarantine of Wuhan – and subsequently almost all regions in the populous Hubei province. Local people struggling to leave while teams of fearless medical workers were “swimming against the tide” to the epicenter of the outbreak. Countless online platforms, both in China and abroad, donating the desperately needed medical supplies to the frontlines of the epidemic. Websites live-streaming the construction of two interim hospitals near Wuhan with over 10 million netizens watching in real time. We witnessed technology spreading facts, optimism, and good will with much greater speed and power than any virus, panic, or rumor.

In the spring of 2003, when I was in third grade and the SARS epidemic was ravaging across China with unprecedented ferocity, the ever-climbing number of diagnosed and deceased patients each day didn’t really materialize into a concrete threat that I could fully comprehend. However, I still vividly remember the dim purple light of ultraviolet tubes, the sharp odor of ethanol sanitizers, and the feeling of rubber bands tightening the back of my ears, as we were required to wear masks to school every day. Once the teacher routinely asked if anyone in the class had been anywhere likely to be infected. As I raised my hand and, with trembling voice, reported that I had been to a major bookstore downtown, the shock and fear in everyone’s eyes seemed to confine me to a virtual quarantine, warning me to “separate and stay away”.

Today, seventeen years later, as the war on coronavirus rages on in cities and villages across China, I found myself struggling with the same confinement to “separate and stay away” from the frontline battlefield against the virus. To my great dismay, after years of striving to become more resilient, knowledgeable and socially responsible, I was still largely a bystander in this epic war of my home country against the disease. Medical workers, many in my generation (some are my close friends and classmates), are now risking their lives every day to pull the lives of thousands of patients away from the cold grasp of Death, while there seems to be so little I can do to help, except to type or utter a few soothing words to my family and friends back home. Just as patients were struck and distressed by the coronavirus, so was I by my inability to engage in the fight against this escalating epidemic.

Yet I soon realized that there is something I can do to help, and in fact I have been doing it all along since my first day at MIT. That “something” is my research. My research group aims to design a “mega-fund” to facilitate private sector investments in high-risk drug development programs. Each individual drug entails too much risk for private investors to bear. However, via financial engineering, we can lower the risk to a level that attracts private capital and thereby bridge the “Valley of Death” – the lack of sustainable financing that translates lab discoveries to therapeutic innovations. The ultimate hope is that some drugs in the mega-fund portfolio will one day become breakthrough therapies to cure deadly diseases, such as COVID-19. Though there are more problems to solve than have been solved, I feel that my everyday endeavors are timely and worthy – that I am engaged in this war against deadly diseases, despite being separated from my country, where many are suffering.

During periods of public crises and societal distress, too often we feel vulnerable as individuals and start to question the meaning and significance of our endeavors. Perhaps the remedy is not to look broadly at the “big picture” – which may be difficult in times of uncertainty – but rather to look more closely and find value in what we do every single day – working, enjoying time with friends, caring for our families – and keep on doing it. To carry on with our daily endeavors is, in fact, a way to engage in the battle against some of the great challenges of our time. 

Note: this post was originally written on January 31st, 2020.