In February, Bowen Wang ’20, co-president of the School’s Greater China Society (GCS), watched anxiously as COVID-19 tore through his home country. Chatting and texting daily with friends and family overseas, he knew that the virus would soon be in the US. He wanted to be prepared. He and fellow GCS members began working all their contacts in China and the US, and soon received about 3,000 masks to hand out to fellow students.
In early March, Wang ran into GCS member Michael Weng ’21, whose girlfriend is an oncologist at Weill Cornell Medical Center and was rotating to a COVID-19 unit. Weng mentioned that his girlfriend and her colleagues did not have enough protective gear and had resorted to reusing masks.
Wang and his fellow GCS members sprang into action. “We had seen what was happening in Wuhan, with the hospitals getting overwhelmed, and we knew the healthcare system needed our masks,” Wang says. He and others, including Loraine Li ’21, again reached out to suppliers and distributors they knew both in New York and China.
“We worked with people I knew from middle school and high school,” explains Li. “By February, production in China had picked up and things were not as bad there but were starting to get worse here, so we were able to get masks.”
Ultimately, GCS students procured 200 N-95 masks, the most hard-to-come-by masks needed by healthcare workers, and another 1,000 of the more readily available standard surgical masks. GCS gave them to Weng to share with his girlfriend and her co-workers doctors.
“It was an absolute relief,” says Weng. “COVID-19 was something I was not able to protect her from. As a significant other you feel so helpless.”
At the same time, alumni from across the entire University in Greater China also mobilized to lend enormous help, with the alumni efforts alone yielding over $2.1 million for supplies.
“We already went through the pain, and we wanted to do something to help. Not a single person can do this work—we have to fight together,” says Steve Fan ’08, co-president of the CBS Alumni Club of Beijing and one of the hundreds of people who worked on the effort. “We had the experience and we knew how hard it was going to be.”
The effort was led by the Columbia Alumni Association (CAA) in Greater China, together with Columbia Business School Alumni clubs from Chengdu, Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Taiwan, and the Barnard Alumni Association (including the Barnard Chinese Parents Club) from Shanghai, Beijing, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Hangzhou, Chengdu, Dalian, Qingdao, and Singapore. The Columbia Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons Alumni Association also played a crucial role, along with more than 100 students, alumni, friends, and volunteers from New York and Greater China. In all, 17 alumni clubs along with the CAA took part.
Since March 23, these alumni clubs across Asia and New York have raised more than $2.1 million in cash and in-kind donations from about 300 donors and donated personal protective equipment (PPE) to more than 10 hospitals throughout New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts. With alumni leveraging whatever supply and distribution contacts they had, the clubs collectively sent more than 3 million surgical masks, almost 22,000 N-95s, 61,000 face shields, 345,000 medical gloves, 12,500 protection coveralls/isolation gowns, and 1,100 goggles. The team has also donated about 100,000 surgical masks to the NYPD and the NYFD. In addition, they donated 55,000 surgical masks for Columbia University administration, staff, and students.
Fan says the alumni strategized about the most expedient way to get the supplies to US healthcare workers. Ultimately, they packed the materials in hundreds of smaller boxes, so they could be shipped faster and easier, though significantly more packaging and shipping work. But that allowed the supplies to arrive in the US in just three or four days, explains Fan, "saving a lot of time delivering the PPE that the healthcare workers were desperate for."
“The City of New York and Columbia University is the community we love and care about most. We all studied, lived, and worked over there for many years," says Fan. "Once the community needs help, we all wanted to do something and contribute,” says Fan.