What it’s like to be an International Student in Australia during the lockdown

Sahana Nandakumar writes from Sydney

“There needs to be more consideration for international students who have contributed a significant amount to the Australian economy. We live, work, study, and pay taxes here. Right now, we feel disconnected.”  This was a statement made by a group of international students right after the Prime Minister’s announcement. 

The novel coronavirus, COVID-19 has been the ‘hot topic’ for many months. Since WHO declared the outbreak as a public hesahana 2alth emergency on the 30th of January, articles about the virus’s origin, its ability to survive and spread, response from various leaders, and the wait for a vaccine have flooded in through various media.  Most of you, living in Sri Lanka, know the impact of the pandemic and the subsequent lockdown. But what you wouldn’t know is what it’s like to be an international student from Sri Lanka, self-isolating a few thousand miles away, in a rented room in Sydney, Australia. 

No second thoughts

There was no second thought about leaving for Sydney in February (from Sri Lanka) after the summer holidays. Australia had imposed a travel-ban from mainland China, but no-one within the country was worried about distancing themselves or wearing masks in public. The university had a buzzing orientation week, and the beaches were full for summer festivals. It was well into the second week of March when Australia’s cases started increasing exponentially and people were finally convinced that it wasn’t ‘just the flu’. Within two weeks all my courses were transferred online, and NSW had implemented an official lockdown. 

Setting up required technology

The lockdown in Sydney is very different to the curfew in Sri Lanka. We are still allowed to leave the house to buy food, essential items, access healthcare, and exercise (outdoors) alone or with one other person. The university assisted students to set-up required technology to work from home and made most final exams a pass/fail grading to support the mental health of students during these tough times. Local/interstate students who had rented out rooms in my accommodation unit were encouraged to go back home to reduce risk of transmission, leaving only a handful of international students living on campus. All group activities were postponed or canceled, all common areas including kitchens and study rooms were closed and all three meals for residents were catered (instead of one/two in the contract) to compensate for the lost facilities. 

Challenges

However, international students in Australia have had to face some of the biggest challenges that COVID-19 brought to the country. The country had more than 500,000 international students enrolled, and many had arrived with the hope of supporting themselves through casual or part-time jobs.  These job opportunities were all lost and where there were jobs, preference was given to locals to support them post the lockdown. Students who couldn’t reach the country or left the country because of lockdowns, continue to struggle with landlords to terminate their tenancy agreements. On top of that, the Prime Minister’s comments requesting International Students to leave if they can’t support themselves, sent a ripple of panic amongst students and their families, establishing distrust in the Australian governsahana 3ment and universities that had promised the ‘best student life’ during enrolment. 

More consideration

“There needs to be more consideration for international students who have contributed a significant amount to the Australian economy. We live, work, study, and pay taxes here. Right now, we feel disconnected.”  This was a statement made by a group of international students right after the Prime Minister’s announcement. 

Universities react fast

Australian universities were fast to act on the dissatisfaction and started providing financial relief packages, legal and psychological support to international students stranded in their country. The threat of losing their biggest revenue (international student fees) probably motivated them to reach out to this vulnerable community. 

Still many unanswered questions

There are still many questions that need to be answered for this cohort. What happens to students who have gone back home if travel bans aren’t lifted anytime soon? Should internationals continue to pay exorbitant amounts of student fees to learn through online videos? How would the global economic crisis affect these students? Is this pandemic paving the way for a future of supreme digitalised university experiences that do not require travel? 

Backing each other

Right now, what matters is that most of us are well and safe with university and community support helping us through difficult times.  We internationals are backing each other and are patiently waiting to get to the other end of the tunnel. 

Sahana Nandakumar is an old girl of Ladies College, Colombo, and a 4th-year medical student at the University of New South Wales.  She is also a director of the Student Representative Body.

4IR

More Articles

Covid-19

More Articles

Education

More Articles

“If you teach a child art properly, you are teaching the child to get out of the box, to move out of​ its set parameters, and to live dangerously.” She...

Value Chain

More Articles