The contradictions of COVID-19: two international students’ perspectives

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Image Description: travellers walking in an airport

Xin-Ci Lum, MSc Migration Studies, Lady Margaret Hall

As I write this, I’m back in Singapore having just finished a 14-day quarantine in a hotel apart from my family. Since 25th March, this has been compulsory for all UK arrivals. The reason is simple. In comparison to other travellers, UK returnees like me have accounted for a disproportionate number of new COVID-19 cases. As this pandemic unfolds, it’s yet another example of how one government’s mismanagement of public health has actively undermined the efforts of other countries to contain the virus.

As an international student, I’m deeply appreciative of how my college advisor and professors have done their best to support us emotionally and to make alternative arrangements for Trinity term. However, I was disappointed with how the University initially responded and communicated with us. Specifically, choosing to take its cue from the British government when it had the freedom and resources to implement additional precautions.

Just as cases were increasing in early March, this government consciously chose to adopt a policy that ended community testing. It switched from advising 14 days of self-isolation for close contacts of confirmed cases and returnees from badly-affected countries, to encouraging people to carry on as normal as long as they didn’t think they had symptoms. All this, despite well-publicised reports highlighting the possibility of transmission by asymptomatic or mild cases.

On the very same day that my home country began quarantining all arrivals from Italy and Spain for this reason, I received a University email repeating this modified government advice — with little regard for how this might directly contradict the health advice international students were receiving from our own governments, and how this might cause confusion and uncertainty.

Throughout all these twists and turns, I felt torn multiple ways by contradictory advice, policies and priorities that seemed insensitive to our needs and how rapidly the situation was deteriorating.

Further, I have difficulty understanding why the University ever chose to reduce its precautions in line with government policy, given that our community is disproportionately international, mobile and dense: all characteristics that facilitate an epidemic. In one of the Vice-Chancellor’s emails, the measures taken by other countries were described as ‘more radical’ — when to me, they were simply sensible. By contrast, the UK’s response instead felt dangerously lax. In the weeks since, we’ve seen a pivot to a strategy of suppression in line with the global consensus, and an admission that the wrong models were used and relied upon.

I don’t expect the University to be omniscient and infallible in such a fast-moving situation, but it could have been far more sensitive to the international nature of its student community amidst a global crisis. When Singaporean universities began recalling students on exchange in the UK, my classmates and I had just been warned that we ran the risk of having to sit our examinations in Trinity 2021 if we left and found ourselves unable to return. When the Ministry of Foreign Affairs advised the rest of us who were still studying overseas to return home immediately, the fate of my examinations was then still a question mark.

Throughout all these twists and turns, I felt torn multiple ways by contradictory advice, policies and priorities that seemed insensitive to our needs and how rapidly the situation was deteriorating. Much of this earlier stress could have been minimised with better communication, preparedness and sensitivity on the University’s part. Yes, this pandemic has upended our lives in ways thought unimaginable only months ago. But it’s also highlighting existing weaknesses in how we do things, on a university-wide, national and global level. One sentiment I’ve seen going around is that the world will never be the same — because we shouldn’t let it be.

Maurice Kirschbaum, MSc Migration Studies, St Antony’s College

This is not another story of how my nine-month Master’s and my so called “Oxford experience”  was ruined by a unique succession of strikes and pandemic shutdowns. Neither is this me complaining about the university’s, colleges’ or faculties’ responses.

Please don’t misunderstand. Those stories are important and they open our eyes to the way impacts are felt differently based on background, and there is certainly much to say about the university’s response. There are better people to tell you about that.

I for one, am still here, enjoying the surprisingly warm Oxford spring and getting the education I was hoping for.

Actually, when I think about it, this time in lockdown might be my favourite time of all here. If we were to talk about the overused trope of the Oxford experience, I am finally getting mine. Here’s why.

Memories are created when new things happen, and this is all new. I would love to share five memories in particular with you.

Our communities have moved online. Alongside other members of St Antony’s, we’ve actively worked to move our college community into the digital world. We’re organising a series of chats, concerts, lectures, career workshops and even opportunities to meet new people. As an extrovert, these activities have all given me some much-needed motivation and energy from interacting with people.

De-localising friendships. With the shift online, I’ve realised I can structure my interactions around people I wish to hear from, not just people I might run into or work with. This is quite liberating, in the sense that I can decide who to interact with, whom to talk to, and who I should not waste my time on! This has made the interactions I do have way more pleasurable and authentic. Recently, a friend also finally taught me how to use Twitter, to no-one’s benefit.

There’s an abundance of fantastic quarantine-induced facial hair. More and more friends are starting to rock college ‘staches (the kind that grow on upper lips, not the puffer jacket kind). They’re great for Zoom calls, and they make my friends laugh, and my mother cry. Strong recommend.

The delightful maximisation of space. I live in Wolfson College, and whilst we’ve had to say goodbye to the library, the common room, and the free coffee inside it, I still make the most of the spaces that remain open. The bar has moved online, with refreshing deliveries to rooms and chats on the virtual bar that some genius managed to set up. The tennis court is still open, and while I’m still as bad as before my Bar Mitzvah, it’s a good distraction.

Most importantly, our dining hall has moved to take-out, which we eat on the lawns or in the Wolfson meadow. Seeing others for lunch every day – even at two metres distance – has built a kind of strange camaraderie, and led to new friendships.

Memories are created when new things happen, and this is all new.

Meeting my local community. Beyond college, I decided to use my hairy legs for good, and deliver food to those in isolation. There are an incredible number of opportunities to help out, from the Oxford Hub to the local mutual aid group. I decided to help by delivering meals for the Jewish community. This means awkward chats with so many new people at a very awkward distance.

It’s obviously not all been cakes and ale. It’s eerie to cycle past the empty lawn around the Rad Cam, though it has its own beauty. It seems every time I open the window someone new has picked up a musical instrument to play from their balcony, but despite that, I would not want to be anywhere else right now.

P.S. To the person on the balcony below me, you are really getting good!

Image Credit: Monika Kostera, urbanlegend

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