The decision by the University of California, Berkeley, to bar hundreds of admitted students from SARS-afflicted Asian nations from attending summer sessions on campus risks racializing a public health issue and intensifying hysteria.
On the surface, Chancellor Robert Berdahl’s decision appears precautionary and judicious. The university will bar students from Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan and mainland China from attending five summer sessions starting in May, June and July. In reality, the move is sweeping, untimely and arbitrary.
It makes good sense for the chancellor to take all precautions necessary to protect the health and welfare of everyone on campus. This has to be the highest priority for any campus, and the SARS epidemic should not be taken lightly. But there are several serious problems with the decision.
First, it is not clear why the countries targeted for exclusion were selected. The chancellor cited sources from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and World Health Organization (WHO) as the basis for his decision. But we know from WHO and CDC reports that Vietnam, Singapore, Hong Kong, China, Taiwan and Canada were hardest hit by the epidemic. We also know that in countries such as Vietnam, China, Taiwan and Canada, only certain cities have been affected by the epidemic (for example, Hanoi,
Beijing, Taipei and Toronto, respectively).
The question is, why does the rule apply just to the Chinese-dominated countries and not to Canada and Vietnam?
Second, it makes perfect sense for the chancellor to put a ban on those admitted for the May 27 summer session, because these students would not have been able to meet the two-week mandatory self-quarantine as recommended by WHO and the CDC (assuming they were not already in the United States when the chancellor made the announcement). But the students already admitted for the later sessions have at least two weeks to prove that they are not carriers of the SARS coronavirus. There is no legitimate basis to exclude them if, at the end of the mandatory quarantine period, they test negative.
Third, the decision is particularly troublesome in light of the fact that the CDC has not prohibited normal travel and trade between the United States and the named countries. Tourists and business people, diplomats and students alike are still traveling back and forth. They are under closer scrutiny at the ports of departure and entry in the affected countries, and all travelers are required to undergo a two-week quarantine. But if the U.S. government allows people from these areas to be admitted into the country, why can’t the students be admitted into UC Berkeley, if they follow the regulations issued by the CDC and WHO?
There is no U.S. prohibition against Americans traveling to any of the countries listed by the chancellor. In fact, Assistant Secretary James A. Kelly and his entourage of diplomats traveled last week to Beijing for a three-day meeting with North Korean diplomats. In addition, WHO has already concluded that the epidemic in Vietnam is now fully under control, and has declared that the SARS epidemic in Singapore, Hong Kong and Toronto has peaked.
With reports of sharp declines in visits to Asian restaurants from New York to Honolulu and fewer tourists visiting Chinatowns across America, such a sweeping and arbitrary decision could not come at a worse time. On a predominantly Asian campus in a multiracial state, it could be particularly divisive, contributing to hysteria and racializing and politicizing a public health issue that now affects more than three dozen countries around the globe.
L. Ling-chi Wang teaches Asian American Studies at UC Berkeley.