If Coronavirus Were To Afflict Harvard

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If Coronavirus Were to Afflict Harvard:

Would HUHS be prepared? Students weigh in perspectives on mitigation of coronavirus outbreak at Harvard, which has coincided with the return to campus after winter break

 

By MARY JULIA KOCH

 

7,379 miles lie between Cambridge, Massachusetts and Wuhan, China, the epicenter of the 2019 Novel Coronavirus outbreak. Despite this distance, more than 350,000 Chinese students are pursuing higher education in the United States and 10,000 American students are enrolled in academic programs in China, according to Reuters. The sheer number of students—many of whom travelled home over winter break—renders colleges a possible incubator for a rampant outbreak of the coronavirus in the United States, especially given the close proximity of dorm living. Harvard is no exception. In the eyes of our students, how real is the threat of catching the coronavirus on campus? 

Experts say not to worry. This past Saturday, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health confirmed one case of the coronavirus in Massachusetts: a student at University of Massachusetts, Boston who had recently returned from Wuhan. Dr. Stanly Perlamn, an immunologist and microbiologist at the University of Iowa, reported to Reuters that the flu may pose a higher risk than coronavirus. “Right now, anybody going to a movie theatre in Boston has virtually zero chance of coming across someone who has this infection,” Perlamn says. “More likely, it’ll be someone who has the flu.” 

Harvard students, however, are not all reassured by this low risk of infection. While some believe that the university’s attempts to prevent a potential outbreak are sufficient, others argue that Harvard University Health Services (HUHS) must take more stringent measures to ensure students’ health and wellbeing on campus. 

“I think the steps Harvard has taken to this point seem rudimentary, almost as if the virus were not being taken seriously. Students who have recently been to China should be screened by HUHS and not left to interpret their own health,” one student says. Yao Yin ‘23, who travelled home to Shenzhen, China over break, agrees that “more serious measures should be taken by the college to prevent any chance that it might spread on campus.” Yao says that no one she knows has been infected by the virus, but her family members who recently visited Wuhan are voluntarily quarantined in their homes. 

In their first email to the student body concerning the coronavirus, HUHS addressed students who recently returned from China and particularly the Wuhan area: “If you develop respiratory symptoms or fever within 14 days of travel, call HUHS or your personal healthcare provider for phone consultation.” Yao expresses confusion towards what the University meant by a “phone consultation.” “If a student is feeling ill, that might be caused by the virus [and] they should be immediately quarantined,” she says. 

But how can HUHS be prudent without overstating risk? Charlie Brown ‘23 commends the University for “keeping the whole community well updated, giving us all advice on taking various precautions, while also keeping us informed about the development of the outbreak on a national scale.” While returning to Boston from his trip home to Hong Kong over break, Charlie did not undergo any screening or testing for the coronavirus, but he says that Hong Kong is one of the leaders in disease control and prevention due to the 2003 SARS outbreak. Having lived through a viral outbreak as a child, he recognizes the importance of alleviating any paranoia about the coronavirus: “Harvard hasn’t created the feeling of widespread panic…unlike what is conveyed through the media.”

Panic, however, might already be swelling around campus. “One student told me that he holds his breath when walking past asian tourists in the yard or square,” a first-year student shared. Frances Hisgen ‘21 fears that “the disease may fuel an already existing undercurrent of hostility towards Chinese visitors to Harvard…I’m hoping that people don’t get hysterical or suspicious about Harvard affiliates who have links to China, or start freaking out about catching a virus from the groups of Chinese tourists in the square or other people who are speaking Mandarin in and around Harvard.” 

Frances deems HUHS’ guidelines for Harvard students returning from China and for the rest of the community as perfectly adequate, and that excessive fears are unfounded given America’s strong health care system: “Unlike in many parts of China, for instance, the hospitals and health clinics in the United States have well established systems of isolation and supportive care that should make an impact on combating the lethality of the disease.” Rather than worrying about when the disease will hit our community, she says that “we should be focusing on assisting communities that are already suffering from coronavirus: donating masks or other medical supplies, for instance, to hard hit areas where supply chains are stretched.” 

Another student, meanwhile, believes that alarmist attitudes on campus may be justified: “it makes total sense that people would be wary of spending time with anyone who has recently been to China, and it also makes sense that most people who went to China over break are of Chinese descent.” They say that such fears do not exemplify racism, but rather an awareness of the reality that certain members of the community possess a greater risk of carrying a dangerous disease. “If there were a new virus to spring up in France, I’m sure students would be skeptical of spending time with students who were recently in France, including French students.”

Evidently, students are divided on Harvard’s handling of a potential campus outbreak and the level to which it threatens the community. So how can HUHS maximize its efficacy in guiding students through this epidemic while mitigating any paranoia on campus?

Daniel Blunt ‘23 offers a suggestion. “Some at the university have a relationship with the administration that is somewhat othering and adversarial,” he says, citing the Ethnic Studies demonstrations and the Graduate Student Union strikes. Given the nature of this relationship, Daniel believes the University should seek the support of Chinese student and faculty groups on campus to address students from affected areas. This outreach would have been beneficial in HUHS’ most recent email, which urged all Harvard affiliates currently in China or who have returned from China since January 19th to fill out a health form. “In this way, the demands for form-filling are not solely coming from the potentially othering university administration, but from organizations that by their very nature have more intimate relationships with the student and faculty bodies.”

Daniel also mentions the fact that Universities require students to receive vaccinations in order to attend university. Harvard should, in his opinion, “employ this precedent as a mandate for this circumstance, changing the language of ‘should’ fill out this form to ‘must’.”

He hopes that implementing these approaches would weaken any anti-Chinese sentiment stemming from coronavirus concerns, so that “those with the unacceptable tendency to turn towards discrimination when feeling threatened feel less so.” Importantly, he emphasizes that “the burden to reduce the threatened feeling of these individuals is not on the group discriminated against, those discriminating should themselves shift their behavior.” 

While the coronavirus epidemic grows, the 7,379 miles between Cambridge and Wuhan seems to shrink. Student perspectives vary on whether the interventions of HUHS and University have so far been sufficient. Nevertheless, in the coming days, attention will be drawn toward the continued response of HUHS and the University should the coronavirus escalate. 

Mary Julia Koch ‘23 (mkoch@college.harvard.edu) writes news for the Indy.