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Outlining Harvard’s Obligations During Pandemics

By Ryan N. Gajarawala
By The Crimson Editorial Board
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board.

Pandemics are scary and fear can bring out the worst in us, as the spread of xenophobia and racism around the world in the wake of the novel coronavirus outbreak demonstrates. In the face of this public health challenge, we hope that everyone in our community will stay mentally and physically well. Still, we urge our campus community to be prepared, be courageous, and be there for one another in these challenging times. Only when we are united can we persevere in the face of this global threat.

As coronavirus continues to spread globally, schools and universities have begun to shut down, affecting almost 300 million students worldwide as of Wednesday In the United States, at least ten states have now declared states of emergencies and, as of Monday, coronavirus cases in Massachusetts number over 40, with at least 32 cases linked to a conference held by Biogen, a biotech company headquartered in Cambridge. Harvard has revealed new policies in response to this growing pandemic including prohibiting official international travel and non-essential domestic travel, postponing gatherings of more than 100 people such as Housing Day, and canceling Visitas — the College’s admitted students weekend.

While we are aware that Harvard has likely considered different measures of responding to the threat of coronavirus on campus, we urge the University to prioritize the most vulnerable members of our community while it continues to develop its policies. The spread of coronavirus will be especially harmful for international students, those from heavily-affected regions, those from low-income households, and those with pre-existing conditions. We urge Harvard to seriously consider the implications of their policies on these students and maintain sufficient and timely communications with them about what special accommodations, if any, they will provide or consider providing.

We hope that staff who play a critical and often under-recognized role in our community — not least maintenance and facilities, dining hall, and security staff — will be considered in all decision-making, such that they will not be put in unsafe conditions and will not be compelled to work while sick for lack of sick-leave compensation.

Students should also not feel compelled to attend classes and activities if they wish to self-isolate, and the University should specify the academic implications of doing so.

The University must ensure transparency to allow students to plan ahead. That shouldn’t merely be a matter of keeping the University apprised of current working policy, but the potential policies that may ultimately be invoked, the criteria the University is using to make those decisions, and the likely implications for all University affiliates. Transparency, in that sense, should be proactive.

Still, we acknowledge that these are difficult decisions for University leadership with few clear or certain answers. They’re no doubt working hard to make the best possible choices they can with respect to both prioritizing the well-being of Harvard affiliates and promoting public health broadly, in light of fluid, perilous circumstances. Whatever course of action the University decides to take should be grounded in the specific circumstances we at Harvard find ourselves in. Again, proactive, not reactive, might be the operative mantra. While it should learn from the choices of other universities — like Princeton University, Columbia University, and Stanford University canceling classes — the University should not simply mimic their actions.

As we opined last week, we expect the University to fight against the perpetuation of xenophobia as anti-Asian racism has spread with coronavirus. But in light of federal mismanagement of the crisis and dissemination of “alternative facts” on the threat coronavirus poses, we believe the University can go a step further. In addition to its own internal and collaborative research efforts, given the wealth of public health and immunological expertise at the University, it makes for Harvard to be a leader in providing accurate, accessible information on coronavirus to the public.

No doubt, these obligations are not small, but with courage, clarity, and compassion, Harvard can prove itself a leader in this time of global crisis.

This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

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