March 10 — 1:00 pm, 2020

Instagramming the new coronavirus

A Masterman junior used social media to reach out directly to affected areas and learn what might be in store.

Lucy Duckworth

Image taken from the World Health Organization website

Editor’s Note: Mayor Kenney and health officials will give details at 3 p.m. on the first confirmed COVID-19 case in Philadelphia.   

We’ve all had the same conversation in the last week. You mention a new coronavirus case to your friend or colleague, this one closer to Philadelphia than the one before. You’re quickly reassured that COVID-19 is hardly worse than the flu, and after swapping some parroted headlines, the discussion ends as it did the last time: Both of you are a little more uneasy and a little more unsure of what comes next.

So what does come next?

I decided to call Wuhan, China, to find out. Actually, I emailed Wuhan, Instagrammed Rome, and WeChatted Guangzhou. In this era of free internet communication, we don’t need to wait for our president to tell us that coronavirus will “start working out.” We do not even need to wait for media outlets to report the story. As a 16-year-old Philadelphia high school student born in the internet age, I’m not convinced we need to wait for anyone.

The way I saw it, I could anticipate what COVID-19 might bring to Philadelphia by understanding what effect it has already had on ordinary people in those affected areas. More than ever before, we have the tools to find out.

With no Chinese language skills of my own, I reached out to anyone who did: family members, visiting students, and friends of friends. Within hours, I was introduced to a doctoral student quarantined in Wuhan, a doctor in Guangzhou, and a survivor of the 2005 bird flu epidemic in Tianjin.

On Instagram, I messaged users who had left comments about the virus in their own countries. Within minutes, I was speaking with students in Shanghai and Rome who were eager to share their own stories. And then I listened.

I have heard about people who endured 40-plus-day quarantines in Wuhan without going outside. I have listened to stories of Wuhan apartment buildings where the lobby door has been locked shut. From the doctor in Guangzhou, I learned of 100 physicians quarantined after interacting with a single patient. Most recently, I was told that over 50,000 high school seniors in Beijing proceeded with their college entrance exams — at home. Students in Beijing, Shanghai, and Rome tell me their schools are all closed, with no set reopening dates. As the student in Wuhan told me, the worst part is not knowing when things will go back to normal.

These direct communications are more than group therapy or entertainment. In fact, they may be improving official responses to the crisis. I was told that in the earliest phases of the epidemic, Chinese people took to Weibo (the so-called Twitter of China) to seek aid. The government responded by formalizing a web-based system for requesting help. I learned that this is not the first time that grassroots efforts have mobilized against a virus: During the 2003 SARS epidemic, Hong Kong residents created SoSick.org to inform the general public.

Mostly, I heard about inconvenience, not tragedy. In conversation, I could hear about a whole experience— not just the headlines. As apartments were cut off from the outside world, tenants banded together to share food and help the elderly. With time to spare in quarantine at home, relationships strengthened via social media as friends bonded over their shared experience. Despite physical separation, a remarkable sense of unity emerged as each country banded together to fight a common enemy.

As a student trying to understand what may be coming to Philadelphia and my school in the coming weeks, I found that technology enabled honest personal communications.

Do we still need government officials and media intermediaries?  Of course. But the internet has made the world a smaller place. Let’s use it to learn from those already facing COVID-19.

Lucy Duckworth is an 11th grader and a reporter for Voices, the student newspaper of J.R. Masterman High School in Philadelphia.

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