The Coronavirus outbreak and the international student’s dilemma


I was spending the night in a hotel room in London when I received the news that yet another person from my college had tested positive for the Covid-19 Coronavirus. Knowing that I had been nearby them in a timespan of less than two weeks ago only heightened my pre-existing anxieties about travelling. My flight back home to Kuala Lumpur was the next morning, and I was thus confronted again with the most significant question that had weighed me down throughout the whole of Hilary – “should I stay, or leave?”.

Multiple thoughts clouded my head, wondering if it was too late to postpone or reschedule my flight, and the overwhelming fear of being an asymptomatic carrier – who could potentially pass it on to an immunocompromised person – filled me with dread. At that point, even the slightest cough made me feel extremely paranoid and self-conscious about getting on a flight the next day, and I could only hope that I was putting no one, including myself, at risk.

Different friends constantly offered me different opinions. “I don’t think you should travel, it’s too risky,” was a comment I got on one end of the spectrum, while on the other, people were urging me to return home as soon as I could, because staying in the UK seemed riskier in the long run. Fears of borders closing and not being able to return home if I had waited any longer thus persuaded me that I had made the right decision to leave, and this was further exacerbated by Boris Johnson’s suggestion of the UK adopting a “herd immunity” strategy, in which realities of the NHS being overwhelmed and functioning beyond capacity continued to inch even closer.

When the first case of the Covid-19 Coronavirus hit Oxford almost a month ago, I heard rumours stating that Oxford’s Patient Zero had gotten it while travelling abroad from Malaysia and Singapore. At the time, thoughts of going back home over the vac made me anxious, not because I deemed Malaysia unsafe, but the fear of UK borders being closed to Malaysian citizens, and me not being able to return for Trinity seemed very likely. Funnily enough, this all seems like a distant memory now, knowing that nearly most of the world is in a state of complete lockdown, including where I am back home.

Yet, when rumours of Oxford’s Patient Zero’s travel history continued to spread, I was approached by multiple well-meaning people who insisted that it was safer for me to stay in Oxford over the vac as they assumed that going home would mean that I was going to a high-risk country. I therefore had to constantly explain that Malaysia had significantly lower number of cases than the UK, with less than a hundred cases at the start of March, which has now escalated to over 2,900 cases and 45 deaths. Nevertheless, I did feel like my odds were still much safer back home, and that I would have easier access to healthcare facilities if the need ever arose.

Even the slightest cough made me feel extremely paranoid and self-conscious about getting on a flight the next day

A few days into the vac I eventually landed in Kuala Lumpur, and when I finally arrived home I had to stifle my tears at the thought of not being able to hug my parents or have any physical contact with them for the next few weeks, despite not having seen them in months. Although I had already bought my flight ticket home before the crisis had significantly worsened, some of my friends, however, were not so lucky. Many who made the decision to travel at the last minute had to face the challenges of exorbitant flight ticket costs, alongside multiple cancelled and rerouted flights due to closed borders, which eventually resulted in a lot of time and money being wasted.

Furthermore, some of my friends who were on scholarships with very limited allowances could not afford to buy tickets at the last minute, and were caught in the dilemma of not being able to go home, while still having to vacate their university accommodation within such a short notice. Anxieties about where to stay, and worrying about being able to afford temporary accommodation in the UK before heading home in the future was also a very pressing matter that affected many of them.

It did not help that by the time some of us have arrived, there was stigma all over social media, accusing Malaysian students who had just come back from the UK of exacerbating the number of local cases. This occurred largely due to the news that some of them had eventually tested positive for the virus a few days after landing. In response to that, the Malaysian government therefore announced that all locals returning from foreign countries would be fetched at the airport and sent straight to official quarantine centres for at least two weeks.

Anxieties about where to stay, and worrying about being able to afford temporary accommodation in the UK before heading home in the future was also a very pressing matter that affected many of them

The dilemma of an international student amidst the whole Coronavirus outbreak is a difficult situation; One is expected to weigh the anxieties of being in a foreign country, alone and with an overwhelmed healthcare system while being estranged from family and friends at such a pressing time – against the odds of being a potential carrier of such a deadly disease to the people back home and in the flight.

This situation is worsened by financial constraints, and the fears of possibly not being able to return home over the summer, in case borders close further while the crisis continues to worsen. Yet even for those of us who have arrived home and are finally reunited with our families, the anxiety doesn’t stop in knowing that some of our closest friends are in complete isolation back in Oxford, and being far away from their support systems at such a trying time.

If anything, this global pandemic has made me realise that both universities and governments should play a bigger role in offering support (ie, free and more accessible accommodation, monetary compensation to bear the cost of travelling for those who cannot afford it) to international students. More effort should therefore be made in making students feel secure in their decision, whether it is to stay in the UK, or to leave for home. It is saddest to know that the dilemma of the international student is yet only one out of many which has arose amidst the chaos of this pandemic, constantly exposing one systemic universal failure after another.

Image credit: StelaDi


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