After finishing her first year of college 7,000 miles from home, Annette Wong ’06 had planned to return to Beijing this summer to spend time with her family. But with the deadly outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, sweeping across Asia and prompting travel restrictions and quarantines in several countries, Wong no longer has that option.
“With the discovery that the government had been covering up the seriousness of the disease in Beijing, my parents decided that perhaps it would be best if I did not return to China for the summer,” she said. Instead, Wong said she plans to remain in New Haven and take summer classes at Yale.
Wong is not alone. For many Yale students with east Asia on their summer travel itineraries, trips have been postponed or cancelled altogether as public health conditions in the region remain uncertain. While the epidemic is starting to abate in Vietnam, Hong Kong and Singapore, SARS is intensifying in China, bringing the world death toll to 350, according to the World Health Organization.
Travel advisories have stripped some students of their plans to study a foreign language, perform a summer internship, or simply reunite with their families. In an e-mail last week, University Secretary Linda Koch Lorimer informed Yale College students that the University would not sponsor undergraduate groups or award Yale-funded travel grants and fellowships to locations affected by SARS, nor would it grant credit for courses taken there.
Elizabeth Tan ’06 had planned to study language in Beijing this summer under the aegis of the Light Fellowship program. The fellowship has since diverted all of its participants to Taiwan. This move poses additional difficulties for Tan, who is a Singaporean citizen, because Taiwan has stopped issuing visas to people traveling from Singapore, China or Hong Kong. Tan can no longer visit home before embarking on her fellowship.
“I’d have to time my arrival and departures — so that I have around 10 days of space just in case I get quarantined [in Taiwan] — and that’s just too much of a problem and waste of money,” Tan said.
Wong said her main concern was the possibility of being denied re-entry into the United States in August in the event that travel from Asia is banned. She said her parents — like many in China’s capital city — are taking precautionary measures such as wearing face masks and avoiding crowded spots, while her younger brother’s school in Beijing let out early for the summer to prevent infection.
Waenyod Wongtrangan ’05 said SARS would not affect her travel plans but admitted she was not planning to return home to Bangkok, Thailand, anyway.
“I guess it works out well for me, since flying through Tokyo would be kind of scary,” she said.
Wongtrangan manages special publications for the Yale Daily News.
Edmond Tin ’06, who is from Hong Kong, said he intended to return home for a summer internship, but since the region has become the epicenter of the SARS crisis — now up to 138 deaths there — he said he was forced to make alternative arrangements. He said he now plans to spend some time traveling in California before heading to Japan to study Japanese for the majority of the summer. If health conditions improve, Tin said he hopes to return to Hong Kong in August.
“I know from my Hong Kong peers that nearly all of them have changed their plans from going back to Hong Kong to staying in the U.S. because of SARS, too,” he said. Tin said he heard from his parents that life in the southeastern Chinese region has not changed much, aside from the omnipresent sight of face masks on city streets.
“[People] still eat out, ride the MTR, and do whatever they like,” he said. “Though they may not feel as free as before, it is not as bad as what the media reported.”
Students have responded with mixed reactions to their respective governments’ responses to the epidemic.
Tan said she feels “really proud” of the Singaporean government’s speed and sensitivity in managing the crisis. In Singapore, cab drivers flaunt “fever-free” stickers, while the government has instituted temperature checkpoints for all arriving and departing passengers at airports and seaports.
But Charlin Lu ’04 expressed concerns over recent government policy in her home, Taiwan.
“I knew that the Communist government in China had begun quarantining people, but it was a shock to me to hear such draconian measures taken in Taiwan,” Lu said. “I wonder if something like this would ever happen in the U.S. if there was widespread panic over the outbreak of a mysterious disease.”
As thousands of people throughout Asia continue to contract SARS with no remedy in sight, Michael Chen ’06, who grew up in Guangdong Province — where SARS is believed to have originated — said that each passing day has made him become increasingly uneasy.
“I worry for the health and safety of my family,” he said. “Here in the U.S., people can’t understand how much it is affecting everyday life.”