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The Legros in Beijing at Tiantan, “the temple of heaven.”
Legro family photo
The Legros in Beijing at Tiantan, “the temple of heaven.”

By Charlotte Crystal

Last summer, Jeff Legro and his family packed with great excitement to spend a year in Beijing. On April 10, his wife and children returned to the United States. And on May 2, Legro left as well.

Concerned by the spread of the SARS virus throughout Asia, the Chinese government’s lack of candor regarding the scope of the crisis and the strain on Beijing’s medical infrastructure, Legro, associate professor of politics at U.Va., and his wife, Janet, decided a few weeks ago to pull their daughters out of the Beijing BISS International School and send them home before the end of the school year.

“Beijing was not telling the truth about the numbers,” said Jeff Legro by telephone from Beijing. “We were watching the growing number of SARS cases in Hong Kong, which has better medical facilities, and they were having trouble controlling it. So, we decided that since there are only two months left in the academic year, we didn’t want to push it.”

The Legros initially heard about the pneumonia-like disease during a trip to Guangdong in February but thought it was restricted to that urbanized southeastern province and Hong Kong. “Then the news started to snowball,” Legro said.

They kept abreast of the news by logging onto the Internet every day at an Internet café or elsewhere. “At first, our Chinese friends poo-poohed our concerns,” he said. “But once they began getting more information, they became more concerned.”

What tipped the balance for the Legros was learning that, while their medical insurance provides for evacuation to Hong Kong, commercial planes weren’t taking sick people aboard, Janet Legro said. And the U.S. Embassy made it clear that if family members fell ill, they couldn’t be evacuated.

“We weren’t necessarily worried so much about SARS as about everything else,” she said. “If anything happened to our kids, if they fell off a scooter and were hurt, they’d have to go to a Chinese hospital. And Chinese medical care isn’t bad, but we didn’t want our kids to be in a Chinese hospital right now.”

So far, at least 321 people, mostly in Asia, have died from severe acute respiratory syndrome, according to the World Health Organization. SARS is a highly contagious virus believed to have originated in mainland China and spread to infect about 5,000 people worldwide.

The World Health Organization reported on April 28 that the epidemic seemed to have peaked in most of Asia, with the exception of mainland China, where it still seemed to be on the rise. On April 30, The Washington Post reported 1,199 SARS cases in Beijing, up from 350 a week earlier, and another 1,100 patients hospitalized with suspected infections in China’s capital city.

Jeff Legro had planned to stay in China to finish the semester but threw in the towel on May 2. “At this point, I just want to see Janet and the kids,” he said.
Legro was teaching American foreign policy and international relations theory during a yearlong Fulbright at the Chinese Foreign Affairs University. Run by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to train future Chinese diplomats, the university trains top Chinese students for careers in foreign service.

After postponing action for weeks, university officials finally moved to discourage students from leaving the campus for spring break and required those who did leave to spend 10 days in quarantine on their return. But half of the students — about 500 — simply haven’t returned from spring break to finish the semester. “I think the university is just going to have to cancel the spring semester,” Legro said.

He said that more than half of the 16 Fulbright scholars in China, teachers in Shanghai and Beijing, have already left the country. About half of the foreign scholars teaching with him at the Chinese Foreign Affairs University will have left by this week. He plans to finish teaching his class online, guiding his students’ reading by e-mail and accepting their final “papers” over the Web.

In addition to teaching, Legro spent his time in China furthering his research on major power relations. While he hasn’t conducted firsthand research in China, he said the experience will give his work a new Asian dimension.

Because the Legros leased their house in Charlottesville to another family for the academic year, Janet Legro returned with their daughters, Madeline, 9, and Margaret, 5, to her parents’ house in Hillsboro, N.H. Janet Legro, a minister with the Mount Olivet United Church of Christ in Greene County, is home-schooling their children.

Jeff Legro said he planned to spend a week in self-imposed quarantine at a friend’s cabin in New Hampshire before rejoining his family.
He added: “All of the fun of China now is gone.”


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