Coronavirus cancels study abroad plans for UK students

Travel restrictions between the UK and China are affecting students across London.

The coronavirus Global Health Emergency now means that study abroad semesters in China have been suspended at some London universities. Students have even left belongings and textbooks abandoned in the Chinese capital.

With books left behind, students and lecturers have taken to Facebook to find resources. Last Sunday on the page SOASk Me Out, a post noted: “Due to the outbreak of coronavirus, the second-year Chinese [undergraduate] students won’t be returning to Beijing for their second semester. Many have left all their stuff in China.”

The post’s author encouraged past students of Chinese to lend copies of the Jump High textbook to the SOAS Chinese Department “for a few weeks” until students’ belongings are returned.

Overhyped fears?

We were able to speak to Kahmel, who is making alternative study plans. He told us that some students are having trouble retrieving their possessions from Beijing, where the study abroad programme at SOAS is based.

“Many of my classmates left for their Xmas breaks not knowing that they wouldn’t be allowed to return and collect their stuff,” he explained. At the time of the outbreak, however, Kahmel was still on the ground in Beijing, so he could pack up his and some friends’ belongings to return them to the UK.

Kahmel studied at Beijing Normal University. Image: Wikimedia/Nick Challoner

But far from a chaotic exit, Kahmel was keen to point out that coronavirus fears may be overhyped: “My take on the whole situation is that some of us (myself included) intended to sit it out in Beijing. It was only when they said that next term was postponed that it hit us that this could be a real problem.

“I have to say from what I saw, the Chinese authorities are taking proactive action and are handling it fairly well, all things considered. I never feared for my own health, I just chose to leave while I still could.

“My Chinese friends are taking it in their stride from what I’ve heard, although they do tend to believe whatever they read, which leads to more panicking.

“On the brighter side, I’m glad I had a wonderful term in Beijing!”

China on lockdown

Kahmel chose to leave China ahead of travel restrictions in East Asia.

The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) currently advises against all but essential travel to China. The FCO also warns Britons not to enter Wuhan or the Hubei province during the outbreak.

In line with FCO restrictions, British Airways is not flying from Beijing and Shanghai until April 1, 2020, although its flights from Hong Kong are currently unaffected.

And Kahmel says that his friend studying in Taiwan, a territory claimed by the Beijing authorities, has recently returned to university.

British Airways has suspended select routes from China until April. Image: British Airways/Stuart Bailey

These travel restrictions are in place to prevent the international spread of coronavirus. The first patient in London tested positive for the disease on Wednesday, February 12.

Beyond travel disruption, Asian students at some London universities have also reported racist bullying on the Facebook page UCLove: “[I] was leaving the student centre today and heard two girls say, ‘…he’s Chinese, I hope I don’t get that Chinese virus.’”

London’s universities respond

A spokesperson for SOAS University of London told LondonStudent earlier this week: “Since the outbreak first started, we have been directly in touch with the 18 students who were on study abroad (most of whom were not phyiscally in China) and we have been making arrangements for their studies to continue outside of China.

“This includes seeking to support them in returning personal possessions from the country, where this can be arranged.

“We are also directly in touch with the small number of PhD students who had been based in China for their research. Our insurance is supporting travel back from China.”

We also spoke to the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) in Bloomsbury. The School said that they have a team of 20 modellers, as well as a group of student volunteers, researching coronavirus. The disease was renamed COVID-19 earlier this week.

The School is researching how the disease is spread: “Transmission of the new coronavirus in Wuhan prior to travel restrictions being introduced in the city varied considerably over time, with each infected person on average transmitting the disease to between one to four people.”

Further research from LSHTM predicts that coronavirus will peak in mid-to-late February, “although there is of course a lot of uncertainty in exactly when this will occur and how big it might be.”

Students who can lend a copy of Jump High to the SOAS Chinese Department should contact Dr Lianyi Song (ls2@soas.ac.uk), the SOASk Me Out post says.

Featured Image: Alissa Eckert/Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)


Will is London Student's Features Editor. He has recently completed a BA History at SOAS, and you might find him hiding in a library around Bloomsbury.

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