Australia's international students are anxious about experiencing COVID-19 away from home

Chinese international student Vincent Lee is self-isolating in Canberra. Source: Supplied

For international students, understanding the advice around the coronavirus pandemic in a foreign country can be confusing. Some say their universities have been brilliant in providing support, others say they expect more when it comes to communication and reduced fees.
Updated 22/03/2020
By Bernadette Clarke
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Vincent Lee is self-isolating in Canberra for 14 days.

His stint indoors began last week when the 20-year-old international student from China returned from Thailand. He had spent 14 days self-isolating there after visiting his home country. 

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The Australian National University (ANU) has provided the second-year linguistics student with a one-person studio apartment where he can live away from his usual roommate.

“They arranged everything pretty fast [and] they’ve been giving me food,” he told SBS News via Skype. 

But he is concerned for his mental health and overcoming boredom.

“I’m a fairly extroverted person and I don’t tend to stay indoors very often,” he said. 

“It might have an influence on my mental health but I do have arrangements with my counsellor in the next few days.” 

“I do have mild anxiety issues that come up quite often, so normally I will seek help with my counsellors. I very much prefer an in-person conversation but it’s not practical in this situation so it will have to be in a video chat.”  

This international student is self-isolating in Canberra

Vincent says he is happy with the support he has been given by his university. 

“I think the information they have provided me was quite holistic and they gave it to me in a timely manner,” he said.  

But he is aware his ability to speak English well has helped. 

“I have been lucky enough to speak English like a first language and I am fine expressing my emotions in English; there’s support lines and counsellors I talk to in English. But that’s not the case for all international students like Chinese students [who] are the group that are affected the most.”

“If universities are able to offer more linguistic and diverse counsellors that would be really great for some students who might be unable to express themselves really well in English emotionally.”

‘Everything’s very vague’ 

Jessica*, an international student from Singapore, currently lives in UNSW campus accommodation. Like many international students, she would have nowhere else to go if she needed to self-isolate. 

She said she grew concerned when someone in the same building as her contracted the virus.  

“Actually, someone from my accommodation [who lives on the same level as me] contracted COVID, she was the fourth case in NSW. Accommodation basically sent us an email to reassure us, and that we can continue with our day-to-day living,” she said.  

Jessica says she has been given no advice in regards to self-isolation, besides ensuring she practices social distancing and remains careful if she has any upper respiratory infection symptoms.

“Everything’s very vague at the moment,” she said.  

UNSW did not respond to questions from SBS News but on its website says it “is taking NSW Health advice [and] has upgraded its cleaning standards above its regular operations to reduce the risk of infection”.  

“Current medical advice is that there is no increased risk of contracting COVID-19 by being on campus.”

For now, Jessica is trying not to feel overwhelmed. 

“Initially I was [worried] but now I think I’m less worried about it. I think at times like this I want to be home with my family, but for now I feel like I’m still coping with it quite well … it might be a whole different story in a few weeks’ time.”

‘I want to go home’

International students account for a quarter of Australia’s students, with a report released last year finding 10 per cent come from China. 

For Vietnamese international student Loan*, who is studying at the University of Sydney, she says she wants to go home but the university suggests she does not leave at this time due to the current travel ban.

“I feel anxious and depressed not being able to come back home,” she said.  

“This is the first year I started living independently, which make it even harder for me to cope. I need to make sure that I got enough food and medicines for the worst situation because my family’s not with me.”

Loan is pleased that classes have been moved online in a bid to stop the spread of the virus, but she says the university should reassess the cost of the steep tuition fees as a result.

“One thing they need to improve on is the tuition fee, we pay lots of money for one semester. We only study online now which is unfair.”

Questions over fees

Iris* is from Italy and has begun a campaign petitioning for the University of Sydney to give international students a rebate on their tuition fees. She says the university has handled the crisis management well but is angry international students like her will not receive a rebate of any kind.

“Students stranded in China have been offered discounts to study online. Since we are all shifting online now shouldn’t we get a similar discount?” she said.   

“Many students will be homeless and jobless this semester, surviving on couch-surfing and extra help from parents to not starve, and the university does not do anything. They do not deserve so much investment from our side. It is nearly $50,000 per year.” 

The petition has attracted more than 500 signatures. 

In a statement provided to SBS News, a spokesperson for the University of Sydney said: “We're not currently planning to lower our fees. We’re determined to maintain our focus on a quality experience for all our students and are working hard to ensure we can continue to safely conduct quality teaching and research during these complex times.” 

On its website, the university says “we do not encourage students to travel overseas and continue their studies remotely from their home (or third) country” as returning for the second semester could become “very difficult [and] we cannot guarantee that you will be covered by insurance”.  

UNSW says on its website it “is closely monitoring the outbreak … and is supporting any affected students and staff based on information from the federal Department of Health and NSW Health”.  

It “continues to follow DFAT advice via Smart Traveller and in accordance to with the advice of International SOS [and] will continue to update students and staff as new information becomes available”. 

The university is also posting updates for Chinese students on its WeChat and Chinese FAQs pages.  

*Names have been changed

Australia’s universities, including ANU, the University of Sydney and UNSW are providing specific COVID-19 advice for students on its websites. 

Readers seeking support with mental health can contact Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636. More information is available at Beyond Blue.org.au. Coronavirus specific mental health advice can be found hereEmbrace Multicultural Mental Health supports people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.

If you believe you may have contracted the virus, call your doctor, don’t visit, or contact the national Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080.

If you are struggling to breathe or experiencing a medical emergency, call 000.


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