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Reactions Are Mixed to SARS Move

Many praise UC Berkeley's curb on program, but some students are troubled.

May 07, 2003|John M. Glionna and Errin Haines | Times Staff Writers

BERKELEY — While UC Berkeley remained alone among major universities nationwide in banning summer program students from several Asian regions infected by the SARS virus, a top public health official said Tuesday that she found nothing wrong with the university's caution.

"I understand they have an unusual predicament because they are expecting an unusually large contingent of students from SARS-affected areas," said Julie Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. "The university needed time to ensure that they had the proper measures in place to protect everyone."

Gerberding said she spoke with UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Berdahl on Tuesday morning.

On campus, foreign students from the areas affected by the ban -- China, Taiwan and Hong Kong -- expressed mixed emotions over the university's move, which will affect about 500 students. Many praised UC Berkeley's effort to stem the spread of the disease, while others said the move smacked of racism.

Why close the door only to students from Asian countries, some asked. What about other countries with SARS cases, like Canada? "To be cautious is a good thing, but it seems as though they're picking on Asian countries," said Charlie Zhong, a 33-year-old Chinese national who is earning a PhD in electrical engineering. "It seems like discrimination to me."

Several foreign students from Asian countries said they felt lucky to already be studying at Berkeley as the ban was announced.

"I'd just feel terrible if it happened to me," said Daphne Tan, a 23-year-old student who arrived from Singapore in October. "I understand what the university is doing, but I think they should allow the students to come over and place them under a two-week quarantine. If they're sick, they can be sent home."

The opportunity to study abroad -- especially at such a renowned school as UC Berkeley -- is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for many foreigners, Tan said. What would hurt, she and other students said, is suddenly being told you could not study in the United States -- not because your grades were not good enough, but because of an international health scare beyond your control.

"I want everyone from my country to get a taste of UC Berkeley life," Tan said. "Things like musical performances and political protests ... protests don't happen in Singapore."

UC Berkeley's decision appears to be the first by a major U.S. university to try to prevent the spread of severe acute respiratory syndrome. The flu-like illness has killed nearly 500 people and sickened nearly 6,700, mostly in China and Hong Kong.

University officials removed Singapore from the list of banned countries Tuesday after the CDC lifted a ban on travel there.

While no serious SARS cases have been reported in the United States, concern is growing. In Washington today, a congressional hearing on SARS will be attended by members of the World Health Organization as well as officials from the CDC and other public health groups.

'Business as Usual'

Still, officials at both UCLA and UC Irvine said Tuesday that they had no plans to follow Berkeley's example. "As of today, we are proceeding with business as usual ... accepting students enrolling from those countries," said David Unruh, director of summer sessions at UCLA. He said about 80 students from those areas have enrolled in the summer program at the Westwood campus so far, and more are expected.

Manuel Gomez, the vice chancellor for student affairs at UC Irvine, said that more Asian students attend Berkeley and that the summer session starts earlier there.

Some Berkeley professors worried Tuesday that the ban would reduce the number of students in some summer classes. The university's action affects summer classes only -- about half of them in intensive English. The school would not bar new full-time students from the designated parts of Asia from enrolling in the fall or returning to school in the fall from a visit home.

Students who travel to China, Taiwan, Singapore or Hong Kong for the summer and new students who arrive from those areas for the fall term will be required to fill out detailed questionnaires and will be monitored by school health officials.

The summer school students who are barred will receive refunds, at a cost to the university of $1.5 million.

Peter Dietrich, medical director for UC Berkeley University Health Services, said the school is working on a SARS screening process that he expects will be ready for the coming school year. "Our doors are open for fall semester, and we're hopeful that things will improve entirely over the summer," he said.

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