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Fear of coronavirus hits St. Olaf

Asian Conversations program denied medical access in Japan, IOS responds to campus re-entry

Fear of the new coronavirus disease prevented Asian Conversations students studying abroad over January from accessing medical care in Tokyo, Japan.
Stephanie Montgomery, assistant professor of history and Asian Studies, and Rika Ito, department chair of Asian Studies, led the interim trip to Shanghai, China and Tokyo, Japan.

The group arrived in Tokyo on Jan. 20 and heard about the virus through news sources. The professors advised students to wash their hands. All those on the trip were already wearing masks because of harmful particles present in the air.

Once the Asian Conversations program arrived at their host university outside of Tokyo, four of the students reported that they were not feeling well. They had their temperatures taken. The next day, a couple students were still coughing. As a result, Ito and those students went to the campus’ student health center. Office workers then referred the group to a local clinic where they could be prescribed medicine. However, once they arrived at the clinic, the group was quickly turned away.

“They were quite upset,” Montgomery said. “They pulled us into a side room immediately, closed the door and then reiterated to us, ‘You cannot be here.’”

The clinic recommended a bigger hospital but did not specify which one.

The group returned to the clinic. The clinic workers apologized and said the group should contact the local public health official. Ito and Montgomery called as requested and said this conversation was the most clear.

“The public health official I think was much more thorough on the phone and did not think that we were a high risk group,” Montgomery said.

Then, a manager at their host university sent an email to staffers with the subject line, “China Pneumonia,” to explain the situation. Ito said that the group was viewed as a “source of danger” because of their previous travels in China.

“We really felt like we had a chance to unpack the experience within the context of our coursework because stereotypes, representation were running themes throughout both of our mini-courses and so in that way it made for a good kind of tool set to digest this event,” Montgomery said.

Director of International and Off-Campus Studies Jodi Malmgren emailed the Asian Conversations group on Jan. 29, after contacting Ito and Montgomery to confirm that students were not ill. Malmgren’s email reached Asian Conversations students the same day that Director of Environmental Health and Safety Elisabeth Haase emailed the campus at large concerning the potential risk posed by the coronavirus.

Malmgren said that she heard of “fears” and “concerns” from students and parents, which prompted her to reach out to the Asian Conversations program.

“I was trying to encourage them to not feel like they couldn’t move freely about the campus but also alert them that there might be some reaction of fear from other students when they arrived on campus who might have known they were in China,” Malmgren said concerning the email.

Both Asian Conversations professors felt that the email ignored the facts of the situation.
Montgomery pointed out that Asian Conversations students were in Shanghai almost nine hours from Wuhan, a Chinese city where many people have contracted the virus, and the group had already been in Japan for nine days by the time the email was sent.
“Our risk, in fact, was quite low given where we had been and lack of contact with someone from Wuhan who had symptoms,” Montgomery said.

Given where the group was in China, Ito wishes there would have been a “more calm” tone present in the email, but did not want to blame Malmgren or create tension.
Malmgren addressed these concerns raised by Ito.

“Certainly we are aware they were quite a distance from Wuhan, and my goal was more to encourage the students to feel comfortable back here on campus even if they encountered some concern from the students,” Malmgren said. “So I’d been hearing reports of students being nervous about students coming back from China whether international students or study abroad students, and so it was really that that I was trying to address.”

Asian Conversations student Emma Boyer ’21 also criticized the email.

“The general consensus was that the email served to perpetuate the narrative of coronavirus as an ‘Asian virus,’ which has put Asian Americans in a position where they are being publicly discriminated against even if they have no association with the disease,” Boyer said. “Since being back in Minnesota, I have had people ask me every single day, if I cough or sneeze, if I think I have coronavirus.”

IOS is taking the situation very seriously.

“I think if there’s still a level for travel warning to China we won’t be sending students,” Malmgren said.

“We’ll be waiting for health officials and political officials to kind of determine the level of risk for American citizens or others who might be going from St. Olaf to study in China and follow their guidelines,” Malmgren continued.

drewes1@stolaf.edu