A Look Into the Perspectives of International Students Impacted By the Coronavirus Outbreak

Overview: Effects of the Coronavirus on Swarthmore Students

In early January, Chinese researchers identified SARS-CoV-2, a new virus in the coronavirus family, which is a family of viruses that causes illness ranging from the common cold to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome. SARS-CoV-2 is the cause of the recent COVID-19 outbreak (commonly known as the coronavirus outbreak), which as of Feb. 26, 2020, has infected over 80,000 people worldwide with at least 2,770 deaths since late December. Chinese officials traced many of the cases to the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan, the capital of China’s Hubei province; similar respiratory, viral diseases such as SARS were also first detected in markets that sold animals. As of Feb. 25, COVID-19 has spread to about forty countries, including South Korea, Japan, Italy, and Iran. In the process, many travel restrictions have been implemented. For example, as of Feb. 2, foreign nationals who traveled in China, excluding Special Administrative Regions of Hong Kong and Macau, within two weeks of arrival to the United States will be denied entry into the country. 

“Jane,” a student from Wuhan who has requested to remain anonymous, said that she returned to Swarthmore from China before the outbreak became severe. 

“We heard …  there might be a virus going on, but no one realized that it was severe enough to get masks …  And I think that [the] five days [when I was on vacation outside of China] was when the virus got bigger and bigger … so I got out of the country before it got too bad,” she said.

She also states that she was fortunate to have been able to leave Wuhan before the implementation of travel restrictions.

“I think the airport shut down just two days or three days after I got here, which was why quite a lot of my friends in Wuhan didn’t get to [go] back for the spring break for their schools. So I was lucky to leave two days before this.”

“Eric,” a student from Shanghai who has also requested to remain anonymous, said that if he had waited a week longer to return to Swarthmore, he would not have been able to come back.

“I actually was home this entire winter break and a week after we were supposed to come back and had to miss the first week of class for personal reasons … If I [had] gone back a week later I wouldn’t be able to come back, because that’s when the travel restriction was applied …  I was in China before and kind of in the early stages of the entire outbreak,” he said.

Staying In Touch With Home

Jane and Eric have stayed in touch with their family members, whose lives have been affected by the outbreak even though they have not contracted the disease.

Jane said that she has been able to communicate with her parents in Wuhan every day and stay up-to-date on information about coronavirus.

“I mean, I’m in the very special position where I hear news from local people and from my parents every day, but I am just not there, which means I’m very lucky to know about things happening in that area while not being there,” said Jane.

Eric has also been able to contact his family and said that they have not been able to find masks online in China. He is attempting to purchase them online through the United States.

“They don’t have any masks. It’s very very hard to get them so I actually had to order [the masks] from America. And I think for me, that also is a very frustrating experience because most of these suppliers in America [have] run out already. If you look on Amazon it’s sold out everywhere. I had to bid for the masks on eBay. And I think that was a very painful process because you don’t know who you’re outbidding, right? Like what if it is someone who really really needs that mask also but can’t afford the extra buck? And of course I condemn those who actually put it on a bid … I’m really frustrated by the process but also feel like I have a responsibility to kind of support [my family],” Eric said. 

Jane also spoke about Chinese hospitals’ inability to treat coronavirus patients due to medical their resources being stretched thin.

“My parents are kind of a little skeptical about the hospital’s ability to treat patients because there is a crisis of medical resources and they’re overwhelmed by the incoming flux of patients.”

In a followup email to The Phoenix, she elaborated on the lack of medical resources for coronavirus patients in China.

“Some patients my family know couldn’t get the help they need, and they couldn’t be diagnosed although they have very indicative symptoms. They are “putting hope” on [traditional Chinese medicine] because those are more accessible for some families and less expensive,” she wrote.

Eric expressed a similar sentiment that he feels privileged as a Chinese person living in the United States, and that he is not sure whether or not he would be treated at a Chinese hospital if he became infected with coronavirus.

“It actually made me realize … as a Chinese living abroad … what kind of privileged position I’m in. I remember very clearly that [during] my last week in China, there were already like 400 reported cases everyday … So, clearly something really big was going on. And I thought about returning to America early, and I did, because I knew that even if I got infected in China, there’s a high chance I won’t even get treated,” he said.

He also spoke about not feeling secure in China because of the paranoia surrounding the coronavirus outbreak.

“I think this is actually the first time I feel more safe or secure in America than in my own home country. And I feel like that’s terrible. It’s not like I feel more secure in America, it just feels terribly insecure in China,” he said.

Sicheng Zhong ’21, a student from Shaoxing, a city in eastern China’s Zhejiang province, also spoke about his family who have been impacted by the outbreak, even though they have not been infected.

“They definitely went through a lot of stress and anger and nervousness. My cousin and my uncle and my aunt — they drove from Wuhan the day I left for the States just to say goodbye to me. But afterwards — like right after I left for the States — it turned out, like several of their colleagues were diagnosed with the coronavirus. So they were very, very nervous. They quarantined themselves for several weeks. They pretty much locked themselves in their house,” he said.

Jane also shared her worry for her loved ones at home.

“I’m worried, and it’s just everyone or everything that I care about is … in panic or at stake. It’s just, there was a time that I [couldn’t] focus on anything else because there were important things and important people to me [in peril],” she said.

Support From the International Student Center and Xenophobia

Jane also stated that the International Student Center and Jen Marks-Gold, assistant dean and director of international student programs, have been supportive.

“I also talked to Jen in the International Student [Center]. And she was very supportive. And she’s been updating me with travel advice and news every day. And she said if things don’t get better during the summer, she’s going to offer me housing for the summer, which is reassuring,” Jane said.

Zhong agreed that he has felt supported by the ISC.

“Yeah, I think they’re doing a good job. Like they’re sending us emails about the various policies and stuff like that … I feel supported,” he said.

Marks-Gold said that Swarthmore would provide resources and support to international students affected by the outbreak.

“Swarthmore is going to take care of that. If they’re a current student here, and they can’t travel for some reason, and they need it … [if] it’s summertime, and they want to go home and it gets worse down the road, we will find a place for them to stay. We will work to support them,” she said.

She also spoke about the ISC’s response to the coronavirus outbreak and its outreach to students whose lives have been impacted in some way.

“We don’t ignore these things. We send an email out right away and address what’s happening, what you may need to know — we’ll help support you, our office is here for you. And getting out in front of concerns, just so that [affected international students] know we are thinking of them, I think really helps,” said Marks-Gold.

Marks-Gold, on behalf of the ISC, sent out an email to international students on Feb. 1 encouraging students to reach out to the ISC about travel questions. She sent a follow-up email to international students on Feb. 19, which acknowledged concerns related to the coronavirus outbreak and encouraged students to ask the ISC for support.

“I want to again let you know that the International Student Center (ISC), and everyone at Swarthmore College, care deeply about each member of our community. Since the novel coronavirus outbreak, there has been heightened media coverage and public speculation … If you are experiencing anxiety or stress, we encourage you to reach out to the ISC and other support options on campus,” she wrote.

The email also emphasized that the ISC will not tolerate xenophobia at Swarthmore.

“Xenophobia will not be tolerated. If you have experienced this in any way, please remember we are here for you,” she wrote.

Eric said that he has experienced xenophobia two or three times on campus as a result of the coronavirus outbreak.

“There are times where people joke about me getting the virus in classes, even in seminars where it’s a very awkward environment because … how do you even respond to something like that, right? And I think all I could do is really make a joke on it. I was like ‘If I got a virus, you got it too.’ But I think deep down I was kind of disappointed that, you know, you see someone and their first reaction is that ‘this person had the virus, because he looks Asian or Chinese,’” Eric said.

Jane stated that she has been treated well at Swarthmore.

“I have been treated very nicely on this campus now, but I don’t know how other people are feeling. I think I don’t expect much, because there are some of my friends who are getting mistreated because they go to Italy or other parts of the United States … so I’m feeling very privileged right now to be at this place while knowing about everything back home,” she said. 

Criticism of Media and the Chinese Government 

Jane, Eric, and Zhong all spoke about the Chinese government’s inadequate intervention in the coronavirus outbreak and how Chinese public’s perception of the government has changed recently.

“It’s a trauma for a lot of people. It’s not only because…people know their friends [and] family are dying or were hurt by the disease. But it’s also how they’re treated by the government, like the fact that they were told nothing about the disease at the beginning of the outbreak. The reason why I was nervous back home during winter break at all was because I wasn’t aware how severe [the] disease was going to be because there was no information transparency,” Zhong said. “Even if my parents were not political people [and] are generally not aware of what’s going on, like on social media, they were talking about it. So it’s very big, the degree to which people are angry at the government.”

Eric shared Zhong’s sentiment, mentioning how people have become incredibly outspoken about the government. 

“I’ve seen a kind of dissent I’ve never seen before in my life, [it is] unanimous from multiple generations not [only] from my own generation. Before, my parents were usually not outspoken about these things [but they], like everyone, express their dissent and just anger towards the government very publicly on social media regarding … this virus, which is [a behavior that is] very unheard of. So I think from there I saw strength and solidarity … uniting against an authoritarian regime that has [a] very, very dark history,” said Eric.

To Jane, both the government and other international organizations are responsible for inadequate handling of coronavirus cases.

“It’s not the money they are lacking. [The Chinese government] needs time to adjust medical resources and reallocate things. And there’s a bureaucratic system that’s kind of slowing down the entire process. If you’ve heard, some agencies are keeping masks from people who need them…there have been reports that the Red Cross is keeping masks from [patients],” she said.

Zhong also expressed his frustrations with the Chinese government and aid organizations, and he insists that the most important thing to do is to raise awareness. 

“The only thing I can do is to spread awareness of the disease and [continue to tell] people how fucked up the [things are that the] government has done and how even the W.H.O. is a puppet of the Chinese government pretty much. And I think they’re doing a terrible job in terms of spreading awareness,” said Zhong.

In a followup email to The Phoenix, Zhong clarified his stance on the W.H.O. and recent criticisms that have emerged regarding the W.H.O.’s relationship to the Chinese government.

“China has invested a significant amount of [resources] and money into WHO in the past few years, intending to increase its influence on international organizations … In the case of coronavirus, WHO should’ve declared the disease as a global pandemic when they first convened in late January. They did not do it at the time, and many speculate that the main reason is pressure from China.” he wrote. 

Zhong also recognizes that the government is also obstructing the media’s ability to share accurate information. 

“The Chinese media enjoyed a very rare one to two week window in late January where they had much freedom in terms of doing (really good) investigative journalism and criticizing the government actions and holding them accountable…[However] after this honeymoon phase between media and government, starting from early-mid February, a new wave of censorship began. Journalists are having a much harder time now criticiz[ing] the [government] freely. Also, state media such as People’s Daily and CCTV are trying to frame mismanagement of the [government] as a ‘victory of the people,’” Zhong wrote in his email to The Phoenix.

Zhong also spoke about his disdain for Chinese state media.

“I think what the Chinese state media has done in the past two months is absolutely irresponsible and disgusting. The state media, a major propaganda weapon for the [government], is constructing this narrative that China has been responsible and efficient dealing with the crisis, and we should talk more about the positive side of the story to cover up the dark and dirty side,” Zhong wrote.

Eric also expressed disappointment with Chinese media.

“I think my disappointment for Chinese journalism is, again, just … a long-written history, and I think even more so in this case where there’s a lot of hidden reports, missed reports, a lot of things that actually have propaganda built into them, that are intended to make people think a certain way. However, there were a few news [agencies] that [dared] to speak out and break the silence while the government was still trying to hide the incident. Citizen journalism was also at an all-time-high, where I actually received many initial updates on the outbreak from social media group chats [and] sharing pages,” he said.

He also shared that he feels that Chinese citizens have been misrepresented in Western media.

“I‘ve actually turned a blind eye towards most Western media, likely due to both the anger and embarrassment I feel when seeing myself and fellow citizens get misrepresented on even the biggest Western news outlet. I think one of the controversial instances was when the [Wall Street Journal] the other day wrote an op-ed titled [“China is the Real Sick Man of Asia”], which caused huge controversy in China, because it was a very derogatory term used in World War Two,” he said.

Eric also shared the story of Dr. Li Wenliang, another victim of government censorship. Dr. Li was an ophthalmologist working at Wuhan Central Hospital who warned fellow doctors about COVID-19 in late December. His messages spread online, and the police summoned him to sign a letter of admonition which forced him to declare the warnings as false news. After the admonition, Dr. Li returned to the hospital, where he contracted the disease on January 8th. Authorities later apologized to him. He passed away from coronavirus-related complications on February 7th. 

Eric said that Chinese people have been turning to social media to share their dissent.

“So I think [Dr. Li’s death] was the source of the dissent and I think that people communicated through mostly again posting on social media. Of course, on non-Chinese ones that are censored by the government like Facebook, like Instagram, but also very, very prominently on WeChat, which is the one social media tool used by Chinese citizens and people. Again, I think both generations were expressing their dissents for that. And I think [the] aftermath of that dissent is actually [that] a lot of the community members, including myself, actually were seriously thinking about immigration, like getting out of China … I think this is one of the first times we’ve ever thought about that in our lives, be like ‘okay, maybe we should get out of this country which really can’t protect us,’” said Eric. 

Effects on International Students in General

The coronavirus is also affecting non-Chinese international students at Swarthmore whose countries have seen cases of COVID-19. An anonymous senior from Korea describes her unease, as multiple cases have popped up in the country recently. 

“I’m worried about my parents — there was a big spike in cases in [South] Korea this past Wednesday, so my mom doesn’t really leave the house unless she has to. My dad still goes to work, but he comes home pretty early … I’m [also] worried that they might not be able to make it to my graduation if this continues until May, [as] the U.S. just raised the travel restrictions on Korea to Level 3,” she said.

Natnicha Sukprawit ’23, a student from Thailand, also shared her concern for her parents wellbeing and future travel plans. 

“Previously, I planned to go back to Thailand and already had my summer planned out. However, currently, the coronavirus situation in Thailand doesn’t seem to get better. More and more people are getting the virus. My parents are concerned about this, and they think that it would be better for me to stay here during summer … I am also worried about my parents because they have to go to work outside almost everyday, and for now, there hasn’t been any action from the government to prevent the virus,” Sukprawit said.

Eric said that an overload of information regarding coronavirus has overwhelmed many Chinese international students.

“It has gotten to the point that I think we cannot deal with more of the information coming from there. Of course there’s information overload but also just the negativity of this news is … still damaging so I think a lot of us actually did zone out, at this point, except from of course your immediate family members, because it’s just too much to take, quite frankly,” Eric said. 

He added that students who have not been impacted by coronavirus can better support impacted students by speaking about topics other than the outbreak.

“[Coronavirus] actually has been probably the center of discussion for international specific Chinese students for the past months or so … So, I think we will appreciate it [if] that’s not the first and the only thing that people talk about when you’re talking about a Chinese student … I’m not sure how much peer to peer could help, but I think I appreciate [someone] just being a good listener, a good friend. If you’re friends [with] a Chinese international student, just be a good friend … Don’t make it always about the coronavirus,” said Eric.

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