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Local mother says pandemic restrictions in U.S. and China separated her from infant son for nearly two years

Hairong Shang-Butler and her son, Ankai, in China, January 2020
Hairong Shang-Butler
Hairong Shang-Butler and her son, Ankai, in China, January 2020

A local mother says pandemic restrictions in the U.S. and China caused her to be separated from her infant son for nearly two years.

Hairong Shang-Butler is a professor at the University of Rochester. She was visiting her parents in her native China in January 2020 when rumors of the outbreak of a virus began to stir.

She returned to the U.S. with her older son to begin her semester. Her plan was to go back to China after the Chinese New Year to bring her six-month-old son home. But one week after she left Wuhan, the city was locked down.

“Hopeless. Helpless,” she says, remembering how she felt. “Because of the 'zero COVID' policy and the travel restrictions, I, as a U.S. citizen, [could not] go back to China. And my parents couldn’t come here.”

Shang-Butler's young son stayed with her parents as they waited in limbo. She and her husband spent hours on the phone and sent hundreds of emails to the U.S. Embassy in China and the Chinese Embassy in the U.S. trying to get visas. She says the U.S. did not allow her parents and her son to board charter flights from Wuhan because her parents were not her son's direct relatives. That summer, Shang-Butler and her husband were told they could return to China, but another spike in cases in the U.S. led to their applications being denied.

“I just remember driving from work just thinking about, ‘What’s the meaning of life?’ you know? He’s going to grow up without parents for we don’t know how long.”

She says during the ordeal, she realized she was not alone.

“A lot of Chinese Americans here were suffering from that — separated from their own children — because it’s not regarded as something urgent.”

Experts say China has among the most heavy-handed COVID restrictions in the world. Current lockdowns in Shanghai have led to food shortages, shipping shutdowns, and delayed medical care. Shang-Butler says initially, China’s response to the pandemic was effective, but now, she thinks public trust in the 'zero COVID' policy is waning.

Shang-Butler was reunited with her son in October 2021.

Megan Mack is the executive producer of "Connections with Evan Dawson" and live/televised engagement programming.
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