Coronavirus response requires efficiency and sensitivity from universities

Universities must learn how to handle the medical, sociological and academic fallout of global emergencies like the coronavirus, says Brian Wong 

February 2, 2020
People on subway wearing surgical masks
Source: iStock

Many Chinese students, returning to Western campuses from Lunar New Year celebrations, have found themselves in the eye of a brewing coronavirus storm of which they have limited informational access and even less control.

As integral members of their respective academic communities, these students deserve administrative policies that balance efficacious quelling of the disease with sensitivity to their needs.

First, quarantine measures need to be carefully designed to maximise both efficacy in containment and long-term trust-building among students. Universities must of course undertake prudent and thorough precautions to ensure that the spread of the disease is well contained, and that any potential patients are promptly identified and treated.

Yet the need for efficiency should not entail a sacrifice of concern for the emotional well-being and social needs of students who are under quarantine. For many returning from afflicted areas, the stress of quarantine – if mismanaged – could easily compound pre-existing psychological disorders and prevailing anxieties over their country’s situation.

Insensitive or excessive quarantining could instil communicative gulfs and animosity between the quarantined persons, their family and the administrators. Additionally, administrators must take seriously the possibility that Chinese students may experience alienation or insensitive exclusion from their peers – even subsequent to the quarantine period.

Poorly handled quarantine measures may have long-lasting residual risks for students’ academic performance or self-confidence.

Chinese students, especially new students, would benefit from affirmative outreach that seeks to include them as active agents, as opposed to passive subjects, in the fight against the virus.

Such measures are not just part of the moral obligation that welfare teams and administration owe those who pay hefty international fees each year; they are instrumental in ensuring that patients feel comfortable with declaring potentially useful information, or that the diaspora community at large could join forces in disseminating vital hygiene advice with local health and academic administrations.

Secondly, as the epidemic grows in China, it is likely that some among students’ families and friends may become infected. It behoves administrations to recognise that these students’ mental health and emotional stability are likely to be significantly strained – if not by their personal circumstances, at the very least by troubling news updates from home.

For those whose families are directly affected, the economic burden of covering their loved ones’ healthcare, or the social burden of navigating intense academic routines while preoccupied by their loved ones’ health, can’t be understated.

Beyond proactively reaching out to communities to offer emotional support and hardship allowances, academic administrations should become more accessible and visible. Counselling teams must be well briefed by relevant experts on the specific sensitivities of epidemic counselling. Such expanded channels provide students a means to articulate their worries and grievances, but also allow administrations to track students who may be at high risk for mental health issues.

Academics should be accommodating – within reason – towards students who may struggle with their assigned tasks. More importantly, universities ought to encourage and support student diaspora leaders in leading concerted community efforts to lend support to both their own members and in ameliorating the situation back in China.

Student leaders ought to feel comfortable liaising with administrations in general – but this is a time when cultural and communicative barriers are particularly pernicious, in stifling initiatives such as coordinated resource donation and positive awareness campaigns.

Finally, higher education administrators must recognise that the coronavirus outbreak poses significant challenges to the sociocultural cohesion of their communities. I am disappointed yet unsurprised to see the onslaught of narratives within popular media that have sought to make demeaning generalisations about the Chinese population. From racist dog-whistling and insinuation about their allegedly inferior cultural practices, to callous comments trivialising the ongoing epidemic, these comments are not only deeply injurious to Chinese students they make them feel unwelcome in places that are supposed to be their “second homes”.

It may be tempting for other students to dismiss the severity of the crisis – but they should remember that their speech and actions directly affect many who are personally affected by the crisis. Greater cultural sensitivity training alone is inadequate – administrations should be prepared to call out, reprimand, and judiciously handle cases of incidental racism arising from this medical crisis. Quashing exaggerated rumours and malicious misrepresentations requires conscious efforts on the part of university officials. They also ought to remind students of the importance of respect, pluralism and empathy.

In an increasingly mobile age, global medical emergencies are only likely to become more frequent. University officials must become prepared to handle not merely the medical or epidemiological aspects of containing diseases, but also the sociological and academic implications of such crises. Chinese students deserve better, and it falls upon universities to ensure this.

Brian Wong is an MPhil candidate in politics at the University of Oxford and editor-in-chief of the student-led Oxford Political Review.

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