Berkeley’s over-reaction

Greg Kane

Imagine: You’ve busted your butt for the opportunity to take summer classes at a university on the other side of the world. Tuition is paid. Classes are scheduled. Plane tickets are secured. This will be a summer you never forget.

Then it happens: The University refunds your money, saying you are no longer allowed to take classes there.

The reason? People in your hometown have been afflicted by a deadly virus that causes Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome. SARS has killed more than 500 people and sickened thousands over the past few months.

You feel fine, of course, but it makes no difference. Your germs are not wanted.

Sound crazy? It happened last week, less than 100 miles from here, when the University of California, Berkeley — the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement — banned more than 400 summer students from SARS-afflicted areas in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. The banned areas were chosen according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s advisory list of areas to avoid due to the epidemic.

Health officials commended the decision, saying students coming from an epidemic area increase the risk of infecting other students. Civil rights advocates had a field day, however. “(The policy) excludes people from educational opportunities based only on their country of origin without any possible exceptions made for individual circumstances,” said Diane Chin of the San Francisco-based Chinese for Affirmative Action in the San Francisco Chronicle May 7.

Is this racial discrimination? Or is it simply UC Berkeley officials trying to protect the vast majority of their students? The answer is neither… and both. And that’s the problem.

Nobody can say UC Berkeley implemented the ban with cruel intentions toward the Asian students. This isn’t George Wallace blocking the doors to black students in the ’60s. SARS is scary, and is spreading more rapidly than anything the world has seen in a long time. By shutting out students from epidemic-level areas, the University is sending a clear message that it wants to protect its students.

The problem is that SARS has already made its way to North America. More than 60 cases have been reported in the United States. In Canada, hundreds have been infected and 22 have died from the disease. Which begs two questions: How can banning students from epidemic areas stop transmission of the disease if it’s already here? And, even if the ban did work, why aren’t Canadian students being banned?

UC Berkeley should rethink its decision to impose the ban. If the students are healthy, they should be allowed to attend classes just like everybody else. If they are sick — and doctors know enough about the disease by now to make a diagnosis — then they should be quarantined and treated. It’s a simple formula any institution of higher education should be able to understand.

If recent studies are any indication, college-age students are young enough to shake the deadly disease anyway. According to a report in the Associated Press, less than 1 percent of patients aged 24 or younger die from SARS. That number rises to 6 percent for those aged 25 to 44. Though it is difficult to place faith in such numbers while the epidemic is still young, it is still encouraging to know that a diagnosis is by no means a death sentence.

Every time a new disease pops up, people immediately react with a “RUN FROM THE LEPER!” mentality, and UC Berkeley’s knee-jerk response to SARS is no exception.

It is arrogant to think we can stop the spread of disease by isolating people, holding our breath and hoping it will go away. The world is learning to treat SARS, just as it did with AIDS, Smallpox and a number of other epidemics.

Lift the ban, UC Berkeley. A student can’t infect someone with a disease he doesn’t have.

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