SARS scare cancels Asia trips
Uncertainty and concern over Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) has forced Georgia Tech to cancel two summer study abroad programs. Both programs involved travel to China or Southeast Asia, where SARS originated, and where the disease has hit hardest.
An Industrial Engineering program involving ten weeks of study in Hong Kong and Singapore was cancelled April 3.
"We were all set to go," said Professor Chen Zhou, head of the IE program. "We had bought the tickets and everything. People were feeling really excited."
Hong Kong and Singapore are global centers for international trade and logistics, the perfect laboratories for industrial engineers. Unfortunately, both cities are also at the heart of the SARS outbreak. Since November, the virus has killed 56 people in Hong Kong and 12 in Singapore.
At first, Zhou was reluctant to cancel the program completely. He explored the possibility of studying at Mexico's Monterrey Tech, but there was not enough time to create a new program from the ground up. Zhou, in consultation with another professor and the Office of International Education (OIE), decided cancellation was the best option. He said SARS should be taken seriously because much about the disease is unknown.
"I understand that common flu is a bigger killer than SARS...but at least it's more understood. There are ways to deal with it. But with SARS we don't know how to deal with it. People put on masks. Does that have any effect? Nobody knows," said Zhou.
"I was upset at first, because I thought [SARS] would maybe go away," said Lee Frankstone, a student who had signed up for the program. However, Frankstone said that he understands the cancellation.
"I think, overall, [those in charge of the program] made the right decision, even though it was a hard one to make," he said.
As SARS cases began to pop up in other Asian cities, Georgia Tech decided to cancel a second program. The eight-week International Affairs program focusing on political economy in Beijing, Shanghai and other Chinese cities was cancelled Monday.
Program director Dr. Fei-Ling Wang said cancellation was "a huge disappointment" and "truly saddening," but "I do understand the rationale."
"I was hoping, until the bitter end, that the powers that be would choose to continue the program," said would-be participant David Mardis.
"Deep down, I knew that SARS is pretty serious stuff, and that the program was going to be cancelled."
"I feel sorry about the cancellation," said fifth year HTS major Daniel Kim. "I really wanted to go to China."
Third year Psychology major April McGill said she was and still is upset over the cancellation.
"I feel that the SARS epidemic was greatly overblown by the media, and I would have gone on the trip despite the SARS threat," she said. McGill and the others are now left without plans this summer. Some are trying to enroll in other study abroad programs. Some plan to take summer courses at Tech. Wang said every effort was being made to minimize the financial loss to the students. Each student will receive a full refund for everything except airline tickets, even if some of their money had already been spent to pay for things like housing and classrooms. Wang said the China program and the School of International Affairs will bear the burden of the costs.
"The refund policy is as fair as it can be," said McGill.
"I am very happy with the [refund] policy," said Mardis. He said that Tech's decision to refund even already-spent money "was a very classy move."
Both study abroad programs are expected to return next summer. "Hopefully, we'll come back, resume and be stronger," said Wang.
SARS first appeared in China's Guangdong province in November 2002. Since that time, about 3,400 people have been infected worldwide. About 150 people have died. Scientists are unsure what causes the disease, but suspect a type of coronavirus. So far, there is no vaccine or treatment for SARS.