Dr. Peter Lee, an emergency room doctor from Montville, N.J., was close to an emotional breakdown by the time he took to WeChat, the social media app, last month.
He was under siege on all fronts. At work, he was constantly dodging exposure to the coronavirus. At home, he was worried about infecting his pregnant wife and young daughters. And in his everyday life, he was suddenly navigating a new bias against Chinese-Americans.
“Comments like calling this ‘the Chinese virus’ have ramifications for someone like me,” said Dr. Lee, 34, whose father moved from Beijing to Albany, N.Y., with $60 in his pocket in 1986. “They fuel a certain prejudice against my kind.”
But his March 20 post on WeChat was about the most imminent danger facing him and his co-workers: a lack of personal protection equipment, particularly masks and gowns.
Three days later, Dr. Lee’s desperate plea for protective gear had worked. Members of the Millburn Short Hills Chinese Association, based about 20 miles from Montville, saw his post and took action, raising more than $50,000 and obtaining 10,000 masks, gowns and other pieces of equipment from a Chinese company with a warehouse in Queens. The gear was distributed to Envision Physician Services, Dr. Lee’s employer, as well as to other organizations.
At the same time in New York State, the Long Island Chinese American Association was delivering more than 10,000 masks to three hospitals and nearly 8,000 surgical masks to the Visiting Nursing Service of New York.
Throughout New York and New Jersey, small groups from the Chinese-American community are uniting to fight the pandemic in this country even as they face racist remarks and some physical attacks. Using mostly WeChat, they are creating vast networks and rallying their contacts here and in China to procure supplies for doctors and nurses in need.
Some of the equipment has come directly from China, from companies like Dasheng in Shanghai. A few companies require bulk shipments, which can be too much and too expensive for one local group, but networking with multiple groups on WeChat has helped with that issue, said Tingzhou Wu, a spokeswoman for the association in Millburn. “We’re saying, ‘Let’s chat. Do you guys want to buy this together?’” she said.
The organizing on WeChat — which many Chinese-Americans prefer because their friends and relatives in China can use the app — is not unusual, said Mae Ngai, a professor of Asian-American studies and history at Columbia University.
“The community itself, just in general, is organized,” she said. “Chinese have all kinds of associations, some based on profession and some based on the region your family comes from in China,” she said. “There’s a history of networks, and a history of coming together when there’s an issue.”
The Coalition of Asian-Americans in Private Practice, a New York group with more than 1,000 members, has raised close to $250,000 since January and expects to get 80,000 N95 masks to New York hospitals this month. A group of Chinese-American professors at Rutgers University raised $12,000 and collected more than 4,000 masks to support a hospital in New Brunswick. A church in Parsippany donated thousands of masks to hospitals and even to local gas stations, where attendants are still required to pump gas by law.
Shen Tong, a Tiananmen Square massacre-era dissident who is now a writer and impact financier in Manhattan, has leveraged his various friend groups on Facebook — including Burning Man and Occupy Wall Street — to raise money and find supplies.
His college alumni group, for example, has so far raised about $100,000, first to help China and now the United States. The group donated medical supplies to SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, Lenox Hill in Manhattan and other city hospitals. “We’ve quickly allocated more than 10,000 masks with that money,” he said.
Mr. Tong noted that donations had come from both Americans and Chinese nationals, but many Chinese companies are secretive about being named. “One of the reasons is compliance and F.D.A. certification, or lack thereof,” he said.
The foundations of business leaders including Jack Ma and Joe Tsai, co-founders of Alibaba, recently pledged to send one million surgical masks and one million N95 masks to New York state. Over the weekend, the Joe and Clara Tsai Foundation and the Chinese government coordinated a shipment of 1,000 ventilators to Kennedy International Airport in New York. Li Lu, the chairman of Himalaya Capital Management, has also spearheaded major donations, and the Committee of 100, a Chinese-American leadership organization, has raised $1 million.
Deep pockets help. But Mr. Tong noted that the grass-roots efforts of smaller groups and individuals had produced significant and immediate results.
“As a trained sociologist, what’s been amazing to see is the inability of large institutions to respond, and how the opposite is true with close-knit, high-affinity groups,” Mr. Tong said. “Call me a new immigrant, but I’m confident in the importance of this ad hoc effort.”
Eight hospitals have asked the Millburn association for help since it began its initiative. At last count, close to 50 Chinese manufacturers of masks and other protective gear had been screened by about 100 volunteers.
“Our volunteers can tell what’s fake and what’s not in one second,” said Maria Wu, another spokeswoman for the Millburn association. Once hospitals sign a waiver, the masks are theirs.
By mid-April, the Millburn association expects to receive at least 5,000 more masks and 650 coveralls directly from China.
“It’s been a community consensus,” Maria Wu said. “We need to stand up and do something to protect the people who are protecting us.”
Especially since some of those people are dealing with discrimination on the front lines.
“There’s been a few attacks against Asians, and patients are very cautious around Chinese doctors,” said Sun-Hoo Foo, a neurologist at NYU Langone Medical Center’s Tisch Hospital, who is also a member of the Coalition of Asian-Americans in Private Practice.
Although Dr. Foo is currently recovering from Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, at his home in Alpine, N.J., he said he is eager to return to the hospital. “If I could go back to work now, I would,” he said. “My only concern is spreading the virus to someone else.”
Dr. Ngai, of Columbia, said Dr. Foo’s attitude is the prevailing one. Some individuals’ bias toward Chinese-Americans would not prevent the community from helping to end the crisis, she said. “Hopefully, when people see what Chinese groups are doing, they’ll dial back some of this attitude,” she said.
Dr. Lee hopes so, too. “I hope people understand that the American Chinese community is very much vested in American life,” he said. “We’re born Chinese, but we’re Americans by heart.”