Away from home under uncertain circumstances: how has covid-19 affected foreign students?
Catalan News spoke to a number of postgraduates on their life in Catalonia since the public health crisis outbreak
What was meant to be just another one of her frequent weekend trips to Barcelona to visit her boyfriend turned into a much longer ordeal for Niharika Mahandru. Mahandru, who now studies in London but who used to live in the Catalan capital, explains that the Spanish government declared a state of alarm to deal with the coronavirus public health crisis only a day after her arrival.
Early on she knew she would stay in Barcelona to be close to her partner rather than go back home to the UK - “We decided it's better to be in a small space together than being away for two months,” - but not long after, however, she began feeling sick herself.
Mahandru told Catalan News how she woke up one day “with aches and pains” as well as a “really high fever” that subsided, but then came back a day later “with a cough” and “gastric problems.”
She had already called the 061 emergency number when she first started feeling ill, but was told to treat her symptoms like a normal flu. She called a second time when she noticed her symptoms getting worse, but this time was told she didn’t need to be hospitalized if she could speak more than a sentence without coughing.
It wasn’t until days later, when her boyfriend was on the phone to his primary care doctor, that Mahandru was finally able to see a medical professional. Her partner’s doctor overheard her coughing in the background and insisted she come into the local medical center.
It was there where doctors ended up performing a number of tests on her before discovering that she “had pneumonia at the base of the lung.” After a 6-hour long wait, an ambulance finally arrived to take Mahandru to a main hospital where she was quickly tested for covid-19 and then discharged after being told she did not have pneumonia.
“I thought, well I can't really get into a taxi because I probably have [covid-19] and I don't want to pass it on to anyone, I don't want to get on a bus with you know, older people or anything like that,” she recounts. “I decided to walk home, so from Hospital del Mar to Raval, at 4:30 am. I got home and just slept for 18 hours.”
A day later she received a call informing her she had tested positive for coronavirus and has been receiving daily calls since then to check up on her and her boyfriend, who has experienced less severe symptoms. They now also have medication sent to them so they can avoid leaving their apartment.
“Once you're in the system they treat you amazing, but to get into it it’s quite a challenge,” Mahandru explains, “but I am very appreciative of our healthcare system - getting medication sent to our house, not having to pay extortionate fees - it makes you realize how lucky we are.”
As for returning to her home country, that will have to wait for now, especially seeing as she has been told to stay in self-isolation for another two weeks after she stops experiencing any symptoms. Her university in the UK, which like many others worldwide has resorted to online lessons, has also been informed of her situation.
Clinical practice put off
Another postgraduate Catalan News spoke to is María José Chacón Medina, who hails from Venezuela but is of Italian descent. Chacón Medina lives in student housing in Esplugues de Llobregat, near Barcelona, where she moved to in September of last year to start a master’s degree in orthodontics.
“Most of my master's is based on clinical practice, which I cannot do, so it’s a bit of a problem,” Chacón Medina says of her current academic situation, speculating that perhaps her program “will be extended somehow during vacation in August.”
Chacón Medina also told Catalan News about attempting to leave the country as soon as her university informed her that all in-person classes would be canceled. As her parents currently reside in Qatar, that is where she tried to go to join them, but only got as far as the El Prat airport.
“When I was already getting on the plane, they stopped me because I was an Italian citizen, and they were not allowing Italian citizens to go to Qatar anymore, even though I haven't been to Italy in nearly a year,” she claims.
For now it seems Chacón Medina will have to stay at her student housing, far from her family.
“They closed all the common areas so we're not even able to go to the gym or to the library and my entire room is about 9m2, so it's a little bit boring,” the student explains, “but we're all trying to keep connected via the Internet.”
Like Chacón Medina, Basil Poulose Cherian also arrived last fall to begin a postgraduate course, in his case in arts and culture management at the International University of Catalonia.
And also like Chacón Medina, his courses have gone online. Poulose Cherian speaks highly of his university for their ability to adapt to the less than ideal current situation: “They have done a great job to collaborate with online classes and they are scheduled on time.”
Poulose Cherian, who also happens to be a journalist and filmmaker, explains how Indian authorities recommended staying put and not travelling anywhere during the ongoing pandemic “because it’s a global thing.” These limitations do not phase him much for now, he says, as he is fortunate to be living with a family he has “known for many years.”
Originally from Kerala, he draws parallels between the covid-19 pandemic and the Nipah virus outbreak that took place in the city of Calicut in his southern Indian state in 2018. Although it claimed far fewer lives than the current public health crisis, he describes how “the entire city was blocked, for a month everything was blocked, and the government came down heavily to track down each case.”
“I am here to look for an alternative life in Europe since it's quite impossible to live anymore, in my case, in the area I came from,” Ali Wanli tells Catalan News.
Wanli is Syrian student who came to Barcelona a year and a half ago not only to pursue a master’s degree in international studies, but in search of a different life from the one he had had in various countries of the Middle East.
Wanli will be staying in the Catalan capital for now, explaining that he could not go home anyway even if he wanted to, but says that the covid-19 pandemic has affected his immediate travel plans: “I was supposed to have a trip to Berlin since I was planning to look for jobs there after the master's, but my plane got canceled.”
As for his academic career, because he is approaching the end of his degree and only has his thesis left to present, his classes were not interrupted. The current situation has, however, brought other challenges: “I used to go to the library every day, I had my schedule where I also had company from my fellow master's students.” All that has changed now, with “tutoring sessions done online” and no access to “the library for hardcopy resources.”
He describes how lucky he is to have a close group of roomates supporting each other during these trying times, but says he worries for his other foreign friends - his various “families” - who are far from their loved ones and are not close to the people they live with.
“They have to be with new people they do not know very well - it’s really challenging for them, also when it comes to language,” Wanli laments.