As Covid-19 continues to wind down in China, alarm bells are ringing overseas. In the face of a global crisis, humanity shares a common fate; we all have a part to play in overcoming this pandemic.
Last week Ms Joy Qiao, Founder of Wellington College China, sent a letter to employees that reminded us it is our passion and sense of responsibility that drives us as educators at Wellington College China. Our staff members – otherwise known as Wellingtonians – were moved by this letter, and feel more ready than ever to overcome the challenges ahead of us.
By sharing this letter, we hope to motivate and inspire the friends and partners of Wellington College China. We hope we can continue to support and encourage each other, uphold our mission and eventually overcome this pandemic together.
With a third of the world’s population now living under some form of social distancing, it is clear that we are dealing with an extraordinary global crisis. Boris Johnson called it “the worst public health crisis for a generation” a few weeks back, and more recently warned that things will get worse before they get better.
A newsletter from Oriel, my Oxford college, gave an even longer perspective: “We are certainly in uncharted territory. There can’t have been that many times since our foundation in 1326, outside times of war, that life at the College has been impacted so dramatically.” We are faced with a once-in-several-generations global pandemic. Disruption to life is widespread and is likely to last for some time to come.
The encouraging news is that China’s situation continues to stabilise, with almost no new locally transmitted cases now. There is a glimpse of hope for life returning to normal. Most businesses are reopening with more people going back to work every day. Restaurants, bars and gyms are opening. The streets are becoming increasingly busy.
Our campuses are open with our senior leadership and non-academic teams working regularly at school now. On my way to the office last Thursday, I noticed the most beautiful peach blossom alongside the road. Spring has unmistakably arrived! Even Wuhan will end their lockdown on the 8th of April.
The news that greatly touched me last week was the farewell ceremony Hubei gave to the over 47,000 doctors and nurses sent there from all over China. These medical workers spent the last two months fighting on the frontline for Wuhan, risking themselves, whilst being away from their families. The newly appointed Hubei province Party Secretary Mr Yin Yong was previously the mayor of Shanghai. He waved goodbye to the medical team from Shanghai saying, “Two months ago I saw you off in Shanghai to come here, now I’m seeing you off from here to go home. Thank you.”
Hubei was never alone in this battle; the whole country united and fought shoulder to shoulder with it throughout.
Equally moving was the response to the NHS’s call for retired medical workers to return – so far 12,000 of them have. In addition, in less than a day, more than 500,000 volunteers signed up to support the NHS with tasks such as picking up patients, delivering food, answering calls and helping the vulnerable who can’t leave their homes. The nationwide round of applause at 8pm last Thursday showed the genuine appreciation British people have for their medical workers.
It reminds me that although my life has been disrupted for the past two months, it was actually comfortable, abundant, safe and peaceful. I know this is not to be taken for granted, as it is the result of so many personal sacrifices made by key workers in essential services. A popular statement on the Chinese social media sums it up well: 哪有什么岁月静好, 不过是有人替你负重前行 (Don’t be fooled by the appearance of a peaceful good time, it is so only because someone else is carrying the weight for you).
During the week of March 9th, our school leaders started to send increasingly strong messages urging all staff to head back to China. This was in anticipation of the school opening that we were hoping to see, combined with the worsening situation elsewhere. In the past three weeks we have seen the rapid escalation of restrictions on overseas arrivals.
In hindsight, our school leaders made the right call at almost the perfect time. I want to thank all of you who responded quickly to their calling. I know many of you had to make expensive and complicated travel arrangements to get back, often leaving behind loved ones that you were becoming increasingly worried about. I sympathise with those of you who had to endure lengthy waits at the airport or go through centralised quarantine, especially if you had young children with you. I can imagine how stressful things must have been.
Services might have been slow and communications difficult, but please understand this was due to tens of thousands of people arriving back every day in need of processing. Thousands of airport and government staff worked around-the-clock shifts in order to carry out thorough checks and handover procedures.
They have been required to wear full protective gear that is uncomfortable, work long hours, deal with daily changes of rules and face the heightened emotion and stress from passengers and their families. Life is hard from their perspective, too.
Our HR teams and other supporting staff were the unsung heroes throughout this time, doing everything they could to try and make life easier for our staff who were arriving under these very difficult circumstances.
Though inconvenient, we can of course understand that these are necessary measures to keep all of us safe. China has put life on hold for two months to get to where it is now. We cannot afford a second wave of infection.
Knowing that procedures are being reviewed on a daily basis and that rules are being strictly enforced gives the general public the peace of mind that is essential for bringing life back to normal. It is also important that our staff who stayed in China throughout this period, including most of our local Chinese staff, are not exposed to any risk by being part of our international community.
I’m pleased to say that the vast majority of our staff are back safely now, well over 95%, with most having either completed quarantine or reaching the last few days. When we are permitted to physically reopen, we are ready to go. Thanks to all of you!
Further, I must give special thanks to all our Chinese staff – you have been a force of strength and stability during this very difficult time. Most of you were confined to your apartments, working from home while looking after your own children. You often ended up working longer hours because of the blurred boundary of work and life at home.
The Huili Chinese teachers have carried most of the burden in communicating with Chinese parents, whose concerns often require long individual phone calls to soothe. Our Bursars have taken the lead preparing, in great detail, our sites for reopening. The handbooks for the special operation procedures are now running into hundreds of pages and are constantly being updated to reflect the ever-changing regulations. Our IT departments have worked around-the-clock to keep eLearning running smoothly across all year groups.
All of this allows me to feel the team spirit, the sense of duty, the respect and support we hold for each other.
Long periods of isolation can be hard for anyone. This sense of belonging to our caring community was the key to my own wellbeing throughout the isolation. I also kept exercising, never stopping my regular running, and started going back to the gym from March 10th. Having my family with me helped of course, so we always had each other’s company.
Many of you have been similarly isolated at home, not to mention the experience of being stuck in an overseas hotel or in central quarantine after you returned. I’m sure our wellbeing teachers would say we should reflect on how this made us feel and share our feelings with each other, so we can learn from how others overcame such emotions. I know there is a cross-WCC team working on developing wellbeing resources and counselling services for the pupils when they return. Our colleagues can equally benefit from one another’s experiences and the use of the Employee Support Programme developed by the Central Office HR team.
Let’s also not forget the parents in our community. They have lived through the same isolation, complexity and uncertainty. Many of their businesses, whether in manufacturing, services, retail or travel, have suffered gravely. Being stuck at home having to supervise their children while trying to solve work crises has put many of them under unprecedented pressure.
With perhaps just the last few weeks of online learning to go, keeping ourselves and the pupils fresh and engaged becomes ever more important (and hard). We also need to keep reminding our parents that this year is not a write-off. Pupils have learnt essential skills during the past weeks and after our physical reopening we will have weeks and months to make genuine progress, to achieve great things and to be able to celebrate this as a community. We must keep going with all our pupils until the final minute of the final day.
I was hoping that by the time I sent out this letter we would already have received firm dates for our school openings. Though we see positive signs and glimpses of hope, nothing is confirmed yet.
I remember attending the JP Morgan Chase China Investment Summit in 2017, when its CEO Jamie Dimon said, “Many people asked me to predict how the Chinese economy will grow this year or next, I can’t do that. What I can do though, is predict what it will be in 20 years. It will be by far the largest economy in the world. If you are investing for the long term, then you have to come to China.”
Maybe I can apply the same logic. I can’t predict how things will go for us in the next few months, as things are literally changing by the day. However, what I do know, is that our long-term future is not affected. Demand for the top-quality education we provide will always be here. Our planned growth for our existing schools remains. In fact, I just heard from our group HR department that we have already filled nearly all vacancies for next year, in the midst of all this! We are keeping in touch with all our new recruits and they are looking forward to relocating to China later in the year.
The new schools in our pipeline have progressed according to plan, despite the disruption. We have ongoing weekly construction meetings and monthly project operation meetings. We have achieved amazing growth in both scale and quality in the past 10 years. Projecting forward, I don’t see that slowing anytime soon.
If there is any silver lining to a pandemic like this, it is how it unites us to fight as one humankind.
As Jack Ma from Alibaba puts it: “We are all living in the same forest that is burning. Any parts of the forest still burning will eventually get back to all of us. The only way to beat it is through global co-operation, mutual support and solidarity.”
During the early days of the outbreak, China received generous help from the international community. Many countries sent us masks, protective suits and other much needed medical supplies. With the epicentre now moving to Europe and other parts of the world, the Chinese government has already sent medical teams to Italy, Serbia and Cambodia, in addition to medical supplies to over 20 countries.
Wellington College China is made up of a diverse community with people from all over the world. Inevitably our experiences and perspectives through the past two months vary. However, our core competency lies in our ability to bridge cultures; to see things from the other side and to truly combine the best of both worlds. In the 21st century, when East is meeting West, this competency holds the key to a world with more open-mindedness, better understanding and deeper integration. This is the only path to peace and prosperity.
Cultivating the skills to bridge cultures is my life’s work and passion. This is where I find meaning; it is my ‘why’ and the source of resilience for me. I’d like to end this letter with a quote from Viktor E. Frankl, “A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the ‘why’ for his existence and will be able to bear almost any ‘how’.”
Stay safe, keep well and see you soon.
With deep appreciation,
Founder and Chairman
Wellington College China
30th March, 2020