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Universities fighting ‘abuse and racism’ linked to coronavirus


(Updated, 13 Feb 20) Discrimination as cases of coronavirus increase

Universities are grappling with “discriminatory behaviour” towards Chinese staff and students as the coronavirus continues to spread.

On 10 February Cardiff University issued a statement after receiving complaints about staff and students from China experiencing discrimination. “We are aware of recent, concerning reports from individuals some of whom identify as Chinese regarding discriminatory behaviour relating to Coronavirus,” the university wrote.

“Cardiff University is committed to creating a welcoming and inclusive environment for all our students and staff. We take any form of racial harassment, violence or abuse within our community very seriously. Action will be taken against anyone violating a person’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile or offensive environment.”

Cardiff University urged staff or students who have experienced “unpleasant” behaviour to report it. As of 11 February, the coronavirus—which originated in China’s Hubei province—had reportedly caused more than 1,000 deaths and infected more than 40,000 people, the majority in China. At time of writing, the number of confirmed UK cases is eight.

Other universities have also been dealing with the fallout from the Coronavirus. One of the first two people in the UK to be diagnosed with the virus was a University of York student, who was diagnosed with the virus on 1 February.

Following the diagnosis, York vice-chancellor Charlie Jeffrey released a joint statement with the student union president Samara Jones and Graduate Students Association president Pürnur Altay condemning “abuse and racism” levelled at staff and students in the aftermath.

“Unfortunately, we have had some reports from students and staff of abuse and racism linked to the current coronavirus situation,” they said, adding that they “condemn these actions in the strongest possible terms” and urging people to report racist behaviour. “Any act of abuse or inflammatory hate speech, whether it occurs on campus, online or elsewhere will not be tolerated.”

A postgraduate student from the University of Sheffield was recently harassed in the city, reportedly for wearing a face mask. “We were saddened to learn about an incident of verbal harassment of a Sheffield student,” a spokeswoman said, explaining that no police report had been filed. “The safety and wellbeing of our students at the University of Sheffield is always our top priority and we condemn harassment and abuse of any kind.”

The problem is not confined to the UK. In the US, the University of California at Berkeley apologised after listing “xenophobia” and “fears about interacting with those who might be from Asia” under a list of “common reactions” to the coronavirus spread.

“We apologise for our recent post on managing anxiety around Coronavirus. We regret any misunderstanding it may have caused and have updated the language in our materials,” wrote the university’s health centre on Twitter on 30 January.

Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at SOAS, University of London, told Research Professional News that universities could help avoid “inappropriate reactions” from some people by being transparent on their measures to stop the virus spreading on campus and publishing “as much unbiased information as possible”.

“Virus do not have nationalities. Our duty of care is to all students and staff, wherever they may hail from,” he said. “It is not in the interest of anyone who feels concerned to ostracise anyone suspected of being infected. Only by working together in a public spirited way can we increase our chance and capacity to contain the spread of the virus.”

Update (13/2/2020)

Amid continuing reports of racist incidents on campus related to the coronavirus outbreak, more UK universities have been issuing statements. 

On 12 February, Adam Tickell—vice-chancellor of the University of Sussex—recorded a message to Chinese staff and students after the students’ union issued a statement saying it was aware of students “experiencing racism, hate crime and discrimination both on campus and in town”.

“I just wanted to say the university is absolutely with all of our Chinese students and staff at the moment,” Tickell said. “We are very much thinking of you, and all the troubles you are having both here and at home.” 

Meanwhile, in a statement issued on 13 February, the University of Bath said “a member of our university community remains in self-isolation pending the outcome of the test results as advised by Public Health England”. It follows reports that a student may have contracted the virus. 

Universities UK has published guidance for universities relating to the outbreak