Health & Environment

Fight or flight: How do Students Abroad Cope with the Global Pandemic

As schools around the world shut to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus, university foreign exchange students struggle over the decision to return home or stay put. 

In Europe, non-essential incoming travel was banned on March 17, stirring worries among the student community as air ticket prices shot up. 

Rachel Khun, a German exchange student in the Netherlands, decided to go home, despite Germany having one of the highest numbers of confirmed cases in Europe. 

"I left the country when face-to-face classes at the university were suspended. Staying at home reassures me," said the 21-year-old, adding that her home in the German countryside has fresh air and open space and she can follow the news in her mother language.

"I will not return to the Netherlands unless classes or exams are resumed on campus," said Ms Khun, who was sharing a home with three other students there. 

Also studying in the Netherlands, Chiara Pierucci, 21, from Italy, decided to stay as the number of confirmed cases there are fewer than in her hometown. 

"My parents asked me repeatedly to go back home before all flight connections would be interrupted, but I thought that staying in the Netherlands was safer," said Ms Pierucci, who lives alone in a studio apartment with a private toilet. 

Italy is the most hard hit country other than China, with case numbers reaching 64,000 and a death toll over 6,000 as of March 24. Meanwhile in the Netherlands, the number of confirmed cases is just under 4,000. 

Ms Pierucci said her main concern is the spread of the virus. "The possible development of the virus is scarier than catching the actual virus," she said, though she also worries about the Dutch private healthcare system, which requires insurance.

Alitalia, Italy's main carrier, requires passengers to wear masks, which Ms Pierucci says are  "really hard to find these days," adding that the two-week required home quarantine would also be difficult in her family of six. 

Hong Kong students studying abroad say they face a larger dilemma as travel times and time differences are much greater for Asian students.  

Maggie Lee Nok-yi said she decided to return to Hong Kong from her semester abroad in Spain after hearing rumours about Madrid's potential lockdown. She bought her ticket departing Spain immediately.

 "I originally wanted to wait for the arrangement of my host university, but I do not want to get trapped in Madrid where the case numbers are so high," she said. 

Leaving her host university in the middle of a semester, Ms Lee faces challenges such as credit transfer and course fulfillment, but she said Hong Kong is better equipped to fight the disease. 

Spain is short on healthcare supplies, such as face masks and alcohol sanitizers, she said. "I only have 10 masks left since I could not find any at reasonable prices. It is quite scary if I walk around without masks since there are more than 3,000 cases in Madrid on the day I left," said Ms Lee. 

Chan Chit-ying, a Hong Kong Baptist University student studying in Germany decided to stay in her dormitory.

"I can observe that the infected cases in Hong Kong recently are mostly the people coming back from Europe. I will have a higher chance to be infected while taking trains and flights," said Ms Chan, who is studying at Offenburg University. 

She decided to self-isolate in Germany. "I will keep my social distance, stock up on food and daily necessities and hope for the better," she said.

《The Young Reporter》

The Young Reporter (TYR) is an English news publication produced by international journalism students at Hong Kong Baptist University. It started as a printed magazine in 1969. Today, TYR is produced across different platforms.

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