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"No one should feel left in the lurch"

A PhD student at the Department of Biomedicine stays indoors to protect herself from the ‘corona heckling’, which several of her Chinese friends have been subjected to. Department Head Thomas G. Jensen calls on all employees to support and take care of the department’s international students and colleagues.

The other day, Biomedical Laboratory Scientist Jette Bang Lauridsen from the Department of Biomedicine received a worrying and upsetting email. The email was from one of the department's Chinese PhD students, who has been instructed to work from home because of the corona virus like all of the department’s employees. The PhD student wants to share her experience, but prefers to remain anonymous in this article. However, she wrote to Jette Bang Lauridsen that she has isolated herself even more than most people have.

Like her roommate, she only goes out to shop when there are as few people as possible around. Not to avoid infection, but to avoid being shouted at. A Chinese friend experienced precisely this during a shopping trip in a Føtex supermarket when someone shouted “virus” at her. This is not something the PhD student wishes to experience and she therefore remains indoors, as she wrote in her email to Jette Lauridsen.

Powerless and far from home

The PhD student elaborates:

"At least three friends have had unpleasant experiences with people shouting at them. That’s why I don’t go outside. One thing is the risk of corona infection. but being harassed is another thing completely. I want to avoid that,” explains the young Chinese PhD student. Not surprisingly, the whole situation affects her.

“I feel upset and powerless. It’s difficult to be so far away from home at a time like this, also when some people clearly don’t like us,” she says.

She lives in shared housing with another PhD student, and both of them are doing as much work as they can on their PhD projects while the university is closed. She spends her days writing a scientific article and doing the data analysis that she is able to from her computer at home.

Zero tolerance

"I felt really indignant on the PhD student’s behalf when I read her email. My first thought was to write on Facebook that shouting at people is a form of harassment and is really hurtful," explains Jette Lauridsen. However, she dismissed going on Facebook and instead contacted their research group leader Poul Henning Jensen, who then immediately contacted Department Head Thomas G. Jensen. This time with a rhetorical question: how does the organisation respond to a PhD student feeling compelled to be isolated like this?

“We have zero tolerance,” is Thomas G. Jensen’s reply.

He also feels affected by the situation.

"It's unfortunate and unacceptable for her to feel that she needs to go into hiding," says Thomas G. Jensen.

He is not aware of other examples of harassment, but the PhD student's situation is worrying and he wonders whether some of the department's many international employees may have experienced something similar. Particularly the PhD students and employees from Asian countries.

Call and ask

"In other parts of the world, the corona virus is known for bringing fear and stigmatisation, and I've since been given examples of people with an Asian background who are treated with suspicion and distancing – also here in Aarhus. This is serious, both for those who are affected and for the university as a workplace, and it frustrates me that this happened to an employee from our department,” says Thomas G. Jensen.

On Friday 12 March he sent a newsletter to the employees at the department in which he encouraged them to look out for one another in these corona times.

"Stay in touch. There may be colleagues sitting in apartments and feeling even more alone because they’re far from home. Regular video meetings should be held so we’ve got an idea of how each person is doing. Employees who experience harassment or stigmatisation should contact their group leader and vice versa, as there is also a managerial responsibility here. No one should feel that they’ve been left in the lurch,” says Thomas G. Jensen.