Yashika Pandey,Student, West China School of Medicine, Chengdu
College days are cherished by almost everyone. It is filled with new experiences, surprises and many bitter-sweet moments. Many look forward to starting college, more enthusiastically if in a new city or another country. The same was the case for Indian freshmen of 2019 in Chinese Universities. The start-off to their academic year was just like any other, packing essential items, like various Indian snacks, farewell meals with their families and a 4 hour 25 minutes direct flight from Delhi to Chengdu. But as their first semester came to an end, their student life came up to an abrupt and unexpected pause and when it will resume, is unsure. Majority of the students left for home as usual, the remaining few were asked to leave soon after. This was in January, 2020, when China had emerging cases of a viral disease which was thought be very contagious. No less than 23,000 students have flown home ever since.
In early January of 2020, when medical students in China were going through mid-year exam tensions, the viral infection had already started to spread in Wuhan. Students usually book flight tickets 1 to 2 months in advance for the winter vacations so they can leave for home easily within 2 to 3 days after the last day of exam. After January the 10th, there was a huge exodus of students, who boarded IndiGo flights from Chengdu to Delhi unaware of the worsening situation in Wuhan. When Wuhan went under a total lockdown on January 23rd, students who chose to stay in China for the vacations started to worry. Parents asked their children to return home as soon as possible so they could be sure of their children’s safety, as the infection then was rapidly spreading in China.
An Air India flight for Narendra Modi’s ‘Vande Bharat’ Mission - dnaindia.com
Some people I knew, and I too, did not want to think very negatively and were not expecting the virus to spread to cities that were relatively far from Wuhan. But that was not the case with the thousands of students across the country. With the termination of all flights from China, students began sending video messages and writing letters to Indian Embassies and the Indian Government. As a result, from January onwards, External Affairs Ministry of India started conducting massive efforts lead by Indian High Commissions and Indian Embassies across the world under the ‘Vande Bharat Mission’, where over 40,000 Indians were returned to their home land in over 230 flights and naval ships. On the other side, students back home had already begun receiving emails saying that all IndiGo flights that were flying from Delhi to Chengdu after February 21st were to be cancelled.
Hence, when students of Sichuan University were asked not to return on the pre-decided reopening date, February the 23rd, they thought it was for the best to stay at home, secure with their families. Due to a nationwide lockdown in China, classes had been suspended for a month, which resumed on March 23rd. Students have been attending online classes ever since. Along with that, they have been getting increasingly worried about their futures.
With limited opportunities at home, more and more Indian students are choosing China for education - Global Times
Due to the growing uncertainties, a few other, perhaps irrelevant factors forced them to think pessimistically of the coming times, such as the tensions between Chinese and Indian armed forces in border areas in June, 2020. However, students wished for a positive response from the ministries after every semester ended. 10 months later, vaccines are finally available to the world including China and India. When India started administering COVAXIN to frontline health workers on January 16th, the country’s own ‘vaccine day’, students saw a light of hope after months. Till now, more than 4 million vaccine doses are already dispensed to Indians but students and young adults are at the bottom of the priority list for vaccine administration. China has started allowing foreign nationals with vaccine doses and a ‘green health code’ to enter from February 1st onwards. Nevertheless, students hope to hear some positive news soon and continue to wait.
The announcements from all Indian and Chinese ministries are practically the same. “Beijing has conveyed to India that it is not allowing foreign students including students from India studying in China to return and has advised them to be in contact with colleges and universities until further notice” [Hindustan Times]. The students have been in contact with their respective universities for an extended period of time. Some foreigners of certain categories were able to enter with fresh visas, however, students had not been included in the list. “We can’t tell our parents the details of the current conditions because they will be very worried. We can only discuss our problems with each other and wait”, says a medical student of Sichuan University. “I miss my friends and the classes. I can’t help but think how COVID-19 is depriving us of a basic college life”, says another 3rd year medical student from Kerala, India. “Online exams are easy but not as effective”, says a student who stayed back in China.
The classes are mostly inaudible, or lag and fail to give the students an appropriate learning experience. This was evident in the various surveys taken over online classes where almost all students had similar complaints. With the sudden and total ban of Chinese applications, some living in remote areas, have it worse. A friend once expressed to me, “The average household is not a place for studying a professional course. Our parents are here and since we are home, we are expected to act like an active member of the house. From randomly skipping classes to buying groceries and looking after family members. Our own families are convinced that online classes can be reviewed later on. All this while studying for a professional course does put a good amount of stress on the students”.
Along with this, some students are facing financial losses due to unnecessary payments. A student shared with me that she had to move her belongings out of her empty apartment because she did not wish to pay heavy rents that were resulting to be pointless. Moreover, final year students were supposed to complete their medical internships and graduate this year but it has all been put on hold. Leaving the universities does not appear to be an option, especially for more senior students. “If the universities don’t call us soon, preparing for NEET (Indian ‘National Eligibility cum Entrance Test’) will be our last resort”, said a friend to me in December 2020. This was around the time when media reports stated questioning the validity of online classes. Transferring to other countries can be a very complicated, lengthy and a costly process.
With growing confusions about the validity of online classes, students are afraid if the Medical Council of India (MCI) will permit them to practice as doctors in their home country. Earlier, media reports had said that MCI disapproved online classes for teaching Medicine. “Online classes are valid and approved for teaching during current pandemic Covid-19 only,” Dr R.K. Vats, Secretary, National Medical Commission (NMC), said in a letter addressed to the heads of all the medical colleges [Outlook India]. If online medical curriculum classes are decided unacceptable in India, many students will face a big problem pursuing a career in India which is the usual plan for nearly all Indian students.
Many disheartened Indian students had petitioned the Indian embassy to take up the matter with Chinese authorities to allow them to return and resume on-campus classes but it is clear that allowing hundreds of thousands of students to return to China in current situation of the pandemic will result to be extremely risky for the country. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), China has been very consistent with their response to questions raised by students across the world. The pandemic situation remains severe. All countries are taking preventive measures to contain the spread of disease as based on the severity, accordingly. This is being done to protect the safety and health of all citizens, including students.
Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying's Regular Press Conference on January 19, 2021 - Ministry of Foreign Affairs of People’s Republic of China
So, it is expected from the students to understand that the ministries are compelled to take these decisions. The MFA says it hopes that the international communities will strengthen their anti-epidemic organizations to win the fight as soon as possible so that students can return to campus sooner rather than later. The Foreign Ministry has explained several times that the Chinese government attaches high importance to protecting the rights and interests of foreign students in China, said MFA spokesperson Hua Chunying in her press conference. The Chinese authorities continue to study the matter of allowing foreign students to come back. They are maintaining communication with the relevant parties in a coordinated manner.
Clearly, the introduction of vaccines is a turning point for the pandemic. But the administration of required vaccine doses to hundreds of thousands of those foreign students will take time, perhaps months. Students complain that they are not able to attend laboratory classes that are an essential part of the pre-clinical phase of their curriculum. Having said that, China has acquired stricter rules to control the epidemic and believes strongly in its rules and regulations. Since the widespread of a highly contagious disease was gradually weakened in just 76 days in Wuhan with help of a rule-abiding population and total lockdown, China needs to impose strict rules, especially over the entry and exit of nationals and foreign nationals. As of February 2021, Indian students hope they will be able to attend their new academic year in September 2021, offline.
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