Visiting Scholar Blog–COVID-19: Replays and Preludes (by Duo XU)

Duo XU is a Ph.D. student in economics at Peking University, from which he also received a bachelor’s degree in law and economics. His research focuses on healthcare delivery in China. He is a 2019-2020 Visiting Scholar with the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Harvard China Health Partnership. These remarks represent his own personal views, not the views of the Harvard China Health Partnership or the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.


Uncertain times. Shutdown. I never imagined those words would describe real life. When cases of COVID-19 surged in Wuhan, information and misinformation spread through social media. People who did not take COVID-19 seriously were shocked when Dr. Zhong Nanshan, who is famous for managing the SARS outbreak, announced that the coronavirus was transmitting from person to person.

At first, COVID-19 was widely regarded as a replay of 2003 SARS outbreak. The memory of SARS is laden with disinfectant, cotton masks, panic, and sacrifice. When the Chinese government took action—with measures that were at first characterized as draconian—many in China ultimately showed support and complied. Many believe that things could have been even worse, since China is still a developing country with limited medical resources.

I was in Boston, and during that first month of the COVID-19 outbreak I was frequently asked by friends and colleagues in China: How does the U.S. prevent epidemics like this from happening? I had no answer. I guessed it had to do with robust preparation and response structures, timely information disclosure, responsive democratic systems, innovation in health systems, and so forth. I was totally wrong and the premise of the question was mistaken. I soon realized that this could also happen in the United States, especially given that people had not learned from past mistakes or from each other.

I sadly saw a lengthened replay of the outbreak here in Boston. “It’s just like the flu,” many said in March. It seemed to me that few people in the United States had any idea what COVID-19 was, even though many studies on it had been published by that point. We spent weeks rehashing debates about how deadly COVID-19 was, whether we should wear facemasks, and whether we should practice social distancing. On March 20, 2020, a friend in New York City and I made a wild guess that there could be as many as one million confirmed cases in the United States, and one third would be in New York state. The latter came true within two weeks, the former also became reality on April 28th, and cases have doubled since then.

As life has changed, the focus of researchers has changed, too. Recently, it seems that everyone is talking about the impacts of COVID-19 on human health, on the economy, and on society. The number of COVID-19-related articles has skyrocketed. As a Ph.D. student, it’s hard to tell: Should graduate students spend their research time on short-term studies of COVID-19 or long-term studies of more fundamental questions? Professor David Cutler expressed a different perspective: Since COVID-19 has become part of our daily life, it is inevitable for researchers in related fields to be asked questions about it. We can predict the future only when we really understand what is happening now. The COVID-19 pandemic can serve as a case study in the weaknesses of our health systems, in identifying our social values, and in refining our ways of seeing the world.