It’s early morning and the Boeing Dreamliner is gently climbing in the inky, black sky above Shanghai Pudong International Airport, China’s busiest international gateway.
It would be over 500 miles away, in Seoul, South Korea, before dawn broke. There are nearly 300 seats but on this crisp, February day most are empty. The flight crew outnumbers the passengers scattered throughout the cabin. Less than 40 people are on board. Settling in for the 13-hour journey to Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, some passengers close their eyes and drift to sleep, but Wei Wei, a postdoctoral researcher in Atlanta, sits in her aisle seat daydreaming.
In just two flights, she will return to her job, her friends, her husband, and her daughter after being separated for over one year.
For many foreign-born scientists, the complicated alphabet of temporary worker visas is the path to realizing their dream of working in the leading country for scientific research. Upwards of 30% of scientists working in the United States are foreign-born, while almost one in every four STEM degrees are earned by international students. They usually enter America legally using F-1 (Student), J-1 (Exchange Visitor), or H-1B (Specialty Worker) visas, but the path to obtaining and maintaining them can be confusing, arduous, and expensive.
Wei received her first visa in 2008, which allowed her to move from her childhood home in Gansu, the poorest province of China in its rugged northwest, to the Mississippian trade hub of Memphis, Tennessee, and pursue her Ph.D. She loved working in the U.S. and decided to extend her visa so that she could work as a postdoctoral researcher, but in late 2019, her visa was set to expire. There was a gap. The documents for a new visa were not ready, meaning she would have to return to China to wait until they were available. Not wanting to disrupt her daughter’s schooling or her husband’s job, she decided to make the trip alone. On December 7, 2019, she boarded a plane for China, expecting to return just a few months later, once her visa was renewed.
Upwards of 30% of scientists working in the United States are foreign-born, while almost one in every four STEM degrees are earned by international students. They usually enter America legally using F-1 , J-1, or H-1B visas, but the path to obtaining and maintaining them can be confusing, arduous, and expensive.
Shortly after arriving at her parents’ home in Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu province, the nightmare began. Hushed murmurs traveled throughout China about people checking into hospitals with a mysterious illness. At the start of the new year, the virus afflicting dozens of patients was fully sequenced, but the government remained tight-lipped and punished doctors and scientists for spreading “rumors” about the new, SARS-like virus. Patient samples were destroyed in an effort to conceal the outbreak, which was rapidly spreading beyond the Chinese borders.
As cases rose, Chunyun, the 40-day travel season anchored by Lunar New Year that is also the world’s largest annual human migration event, began. Billions of people crisscrossed the country to reunite with their families and celebrate. Yet, in the wee hours of January 23, 2020, just two days before the official start of Chinese New Year, smartphones in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province, buzzed in unison, jarring people awake from their visions of holiday dishes and fireworks and lanterns.
Wuhan, “the Chicago of China”, was to go under lockdown as of 10 am. No one would be allowed to leave the city after that time without permission.
Wei knew then that her return home would be delayed, but making it back to her daughter and husband became her one and only dream. Although she was over 700 miles away from Wuhan and it would take another couple of weeks and 54 positive cases in Lanzhou before the city instituted its own lockdown, panic mounted across China. Wuhan constructed two field hospitals in ten days to service the surging cases. Cities across the world advised self-imposed quarantines following travel.
Wei recalls the lockdown restrictions her cousin faced in Wuhan. “You cannot even travel outside your apartment.” She painted a picture of her cousin sharing a small apartment with two sons, aged 7 and 4, wiping down deliveries with ethanol before bringing them into their home. Life in Wuhan was like this for 76 days. Volunteers distributed goods to front doors but otherwise, non-essential workers stayed inside, sealed off from the rest of the world. That was far more extreme than the lockdown Wei and her parents faced in Lanzhou that went into effect in early February. Each day, one household member was allowed to leave for necessary activities, like grocery shopping. There were curfews and entry and exit from the city was highly regulated, but that lasted less than a month. Despite life in Lanzhou quickly recovering, flights leaving China were canceled, Wei’s visa processing was on hold indefinitely, and her dreams of returning home in February were dashed. Maybe during the spring or April; definitely before Memorial Day, she hoped.
Life felt easy again by March 2020 in Gansu: masks and sanitizers were easy to get, people could come and go freely, reports of new cases were minimal. While China was the first country to encounter COVID-19, only Hubei province suffered known massive outbreaks. The aggressive lockdown measures within Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak, and limiting Chinese immigration and emigration was effective at quelling the spread. As reports of new cases declined, most things returned to normal. Despite the eased restrictions, many government offices, including the American Embassy in Shanghai, remained closed to the general public, so Wei couldn’t complete her visa process.
Wei was stuck at home, thousands of miles from her home. All she could do was wait.
She remained with her parents in Lanzhou for the spring. Like so many others during the pandemic with workplaces shuttered, she worked remotely. As a scientist over 7500 miles away from her lab, Wei couldn’t perform experiments so she wrote papers, read articles, thought about her research plan, and, of course, joined a litany of Zoom calls. Lanzhou is twelve hours ahead of Atlanta. Weekly virtual work meetings were scheduled for 2 pm, so Wei logged in at 2 am for the hour-long meeting.
Lanzhou is twelve hours ahead of Atlanta. Weekly virtual work meetings were scheduled for 2 pm, so Wei logged in at 2 am for the hour-long meeting.
Wei didn’t just work remotely. She continued her life remotely. After work calls in the wee hours of the morning, she spent the dawning hours of the day by the hazy glow of her laptop working while her daughter came back from school and did homework. She ate breakfast as her husband prepared dinner on the other end of the line, on the other end of the day, on the other end of the world. The computer screen made it almost as if they were sitting side-by-side. Almost.
As Memorial Day approached, Wei’s daughter finished fifth grade and as summer slipped into fall, she moved on to middle school, but Wei missed her daughter's first day of (virtual) sixth grade. While life all around her was resuming, Wei remained stagnant, still waiting for an interview with the embassy.
Almost exactly one year after she left America, Wei’s visa was approved in early December 2020 and she could legally return to Atlanta, but traveling was still problematic. Flights were difficult to come by due to the pandemic and, when available, they were expensive and lengthy. What would normally be a 15-hour trip might take 40-50 hours with layovers and airport switches in countless cities; getting from Lanzhou to Pudong already meant an extra connecting flight or spending hours on a train. She decided to wait just a little longer to be reunited with her husband and daughter.
Just after her visa was approved and almost parallel to authorization and delivery of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines in the United States, China began administering its first COVID-19 vaccine developed by state-owned company Sinopharm to the public. By the time Chinese authorities issued approval for general use of the vaccine on December 30, 2020, over one million people, ten times more than there were total positive COVID-19 cases in China at that time, had received CoronaVac through emergency authorization.
When Wei, who holds a Masters’ degree in Immunology and a Ph.D., had the opportunity to receive her first dose of a Chinese-developed Covid-19 vaccine in January 2021 she eagerly rolled up her sleeve, but it was a choice not without consequences. It meant waiting several weeks before her second dose and two more weeks before she would be fully vaccinated and could return home.
Though the plane was nearly empty of passengers, Wei herself was carrying millions of passengers – antibodies from her vaccine, designed to recognize SARS-CoV-2 antigens.
Finally, on February 22, 2021, 443 days after she last hugged her husband and daughter, Wei made her way through Pudong and boarded her first flight. Though the plane was nearly empty of passengers, Wei herself was carrying millions of passengers – antibodies from her vaccine, designed to recognize SARS-CoV-2 antigens. When Wei landed in Atlanta and reunited with her family, her daughter remarked it was like fantasy – she couldn’t believe it was real. “You were gone for so long.”
Wei is not the only foreign-born scientist who suffered visa issues related to the pandemic. Throughout 2020, the office of the President issued numerous proclamations in order to contain the spread of Covid-19 that made the already labyrinthine process of obtaining or renewing visas and entering the United States even more grueling. The fiscal year 2020 saw less than half as many F-1, J-1, and H-1B visas issued compared to the preceding year, resulting in a massive backlog of applications still awaiting processing to this day.
As difficult as the experience was for her, Wei felt relieved to be back in the States. “Sometimes you have to suffer since you cannot change anything”, she told me.
Even though many countries consider her fully vaccinated because she has received COVID-19 vaccines developed in China, other countries were hesitant to accept foreign developed vaccines. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now recognizes any vaccine listed on the World Health Organization Emergency Use List but the FDA has not yet issued an Emergency Use Authorization for any vaccines developed outside the United States. As new federal mandates continue to emerge and local events and businesses begin to require proof of vaccination, uncertainties remain regarding which vaccines will be accepted. Given these grey areas, Wei opted to receive another round of vaccines, this time one developed in the US.
“I just do what I can do,” she said before she left me on a late Thursday afternoon to rush off for her second dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, her fourth Covid-19 vaccine in total.