As a UC Berkeley exchange student in China, Connie Wu, a junior, at first thought the foreign press might be overplaying the SARS story.
“The government was really not reporting anything,” Wu said. “People were just going about their daily business. Everything was calm. I didn’t know who to believe.”
Then, rumors and new press reports suggested the government was being deceitful about the scope of severe acute respiratory syndrome, and people on the street began wearing masks.
On April 15, Peking University announced that a professor’s mother had died of the mysterious illness and that the lecturer herself might be infected.
“All of a sudden, departments were shutting down, classes stopped,” Wu said. “It was at that point that there was a real sense of fear.”
Two days later, the nine-campus University of California announced that it was recalling all 44 of its students, including 10 from UC Berkeley. Wu and her classmates scrambled to drop apartment leases, close bank accounts and buy plane tickets. Within two weeks all but one student, a UC Santa Cruz undergraduate who stayed behind to work on a Chinese television show about American sports terminology, had left Beijing.
Wu said UC made the right call in bringing the students home.
“People were hoarding food,” she said. “The streets were emptying out. Even if we had stayed in Beijing, what’s the point of being cooped up in your room all day long?”
None of the returning students have tested positive for SARS, which had infected 7,053 people worldwide and killed 506 as of Wednesday, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
UC’s SARS saga did not end with the Beijing exodus in April. Last week, the university announced it was canceling its summer session in China, a decision that affected 130 students. UC Berkeley went a step further, barring an estimated 500 students from SARS-affected areas — China, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong — from enrolling in its own summer program.
The university later dropped Singapore from the list because the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) downgraded its warning about the country. Still, the move, which could cost the university $1.5 million to $2 million in lost revenue, has drawn fire from Asian civil rights advocates.
“This policy excludes people from educational opportunities based only on their country of origin without any possible exceptions made for individual circumstances,” said Diane Chin, executive director of the San Francisco-based Chinese for Affirmative Action, in a statement this week.
UC Berkeley Professor of Asian American Studies L. Ling-chi Wang, in a commentary piece that appears in today’s Daily Planet, writes that UC Berkeley’s decision “risks racializing a public health issue and inciting further hysteria” on a campus with a large Asian population. He also charges that the university has arbitrarily chosen countries for the ban, noting that Canada and Vietnam have also had significant SARS problems.
But UC Berkeley spokesman Marie Felde notes that the CDC reported a lower threat level in Canada and Vietnam.
“There’s nothing arbitrary about it,” she said.
Felde said the university will admit students from China, Taiwan and Hong Kong as soon as the CDC scales back its travel warnings for those areas.
“If circumstances change, then the policy will change,” she said. “We want the students to come to this country.”
Public health officials have divided on UC Berkeley’s decision, with the city of Berkeley’s director of public health, Dr. Poki Namkung, backing it and Diana Bonta, director of the California Department of Health Services, arguing that the university policy “goes a step beyond what our advice would be.”
UC Berkeley sophomore Victoria Huang, who was also studying at Peking University, said the quiet was eerie in a city that was normally bustling.
“The trains were pretty empty,” she said. “Usually, you can’t find a place to stand. And now, you could get a seat.”
Still, Huang said she was not seriously considering leaving China until UC announced the recall on April 17. Just a couple of hours before the announcement, she said, she was telling a friend in San Francisco, over the phone, that she had no intention to leave.
“I thought people were too worried about it,” she said. “Now, I’ve taken a 180-degree turn.”