Coronavirus triggers travel restrictions and other countermeasures
Editor’s note: This is a rapidly evolving story and the information published below is current as of 31 January.
International student movement, along with class and exam schedules in China, have already been impacted by an outbreak of the novel coronavirus (aka 2019-nCoV). The virus originated in Wuhan and, as of 31 January, has killed more than 200 people, sickened nearly 10,000, and left hundreds critically ill.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the coronavirus a global health emergency on 30 January, calling it an "unprecedented outbreak" and says there are now 98 cases outside of China across 18 countries. At the same time, it says that the "declaration was not a vote of no confidence in China" and that “the WHO continues to have confidence in China’s capacity to control the outbreak.” The WHO's decision to declare the emergency was taken thinking of countries with weaker health systems than China's. The WHO has offered all and any assistance to those countries to help them prevent the further spread of the virus.
There are thousands of foreigners and visiting students in Wuhan and other areas of China where the Chinese government has imposed sweeping restrictions on travel. Several international governments are now sending planes in to take their citizens out of the area, and a number – including the US and Japan – have issued travel advisories recommending against travel to China.
On 28 January, China cancelled all February sittings for the following standardised tests: the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT), the International English Language Testing System (IELTS), and the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL). As readers will appreciate, these are all exams that are integral steps in study abroad planning for Chinese students.
In a subsequent statement, the IELTS partner organisations affirmed that, "All IELTS and IELTS for UKVI tests are currently suspended in China, Hong Kong SAR and Macau SAR," and added the following detail:
- Mainland China: All tests suspended until 1 March 2020
- Macau: All tests suspended until 11 February 2020
- Hong Kong: All tests suspended until 17 February 2020
Also on 28 January, the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended that no one undertake any non-essential travel to China. This is an expansion of its earlier travel advisory that had cautioned only against travel to Wuhan. Canada and the UK have also issued travel warnings.
As Inside Higher Ed notes,
“The warning is likely to have significant impacts for higher education institutions with exchange programmes in China. China is the leading source of international students in the US, and it is the seventh-most-popular destination for Americans studying abroad.”
In the following countries, at least one in five international students are Chinese, a fact that underscores the significance of the outbreak in terms of global student mobility:
Coronavirus and influenza
The impact of the virus is obviously very serious, but it is also important to contextualise. As James R. Jacobs, the chair of the American College Health Association’s Emerging Public Health Threats and Emergency Response Coalition, told Inside Higher Ed:
"Many strains of coronaviruses are ubiquitous and are often responsible for symptoms that we attribute to the 'common cold.’ Similarly, coronavirus 2019-nCoV seemingly causes no or mild symptoms in most people infected by it."
As yet, the coronavirus has in fact been far less deadly than the annual flu outbreak in North America. For example, the CDC estimates that since October 2019, between 8,000 and 20,000 people in the US have died from flu-related causes.
The shadow of SARS
The mysterious origin of the coronavirus, the fact that there is not yet a vaccine for it, and the rapid spread of the disease bear striking similarities to the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) outbreak that rocked the world between November 2002 and July 2003.
That pandemic was responsible for 774 deaths across 17 countries, the great majority of those in China and Hong Kong. At that time, as the University of Toronto reported, “no one was prepared – hospitals were caught unaware and health care professionals struggled to make sense of a deadly virus that initially looked and felt like the common cold and flu.”
Studies have determined that SARS depleted the global economy by US$33 billion in 2003, that China and Hong Kong lost 1–3% of their GDP that year, and that total East Asian losses were on the order of US$20 billion.
Needless to say, there were important impacts on student mobility at the time as well, with normal student movement to and from China particularly affected.
Follow expert advice
The lessons learned from SARS are being intensively reviewed by healthcare workers and educators in an effort to do everything possible to protect students from contagion, to allow them – as best as possible – to continue their studies, and to provide accurate information and dispel rumours.
Michael Hester from the Australia-China Youth Association told Australia’s The Age that he worries that “Chinese students will be…treated differently on Australian campuses.” He explained that “we’ve been doing a lot of promotion within our WeChat groups that it’s a medical issue and shouldn't be put on international students."
In Toronto, Canada, infectious disease expert Dr. Neil Rau spoke to media in response to reports that some community members are urging families just back from China to quarantine themselves for days. He said bluntly, “stop creating an epidemic of fear” and instead follow the advice of world experts. He continued:
“We don’t need people going rogue, deciding to do their own form of quarantine where they tell people to stay home for two weeks after they came back from China. No one is telling anyone to do that at this time. It is incredibly disruptive, it has economic consequences, it is inconvenient for parents, it’s bad for kids’ education if schools do this.”
Early educator response
There are now daily reports of different measures being taken by educators around the world to combat the outbreak. Recent examples include:
- In the UK, Chinese students have been cautioned by some universities that they may have to undergo a quarantine period upon their return from Lunar New Year celebrations in China;
- In the US, the American College Health Association’s Emerging Public Health Threats and Emergency Response Coalition advises educators to follow the latest advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC);
- In Sydney, Australia, several private schools are requiring students flying back from China to provide proof of medical clearance before returning to school, while others are asking for students to remain out of school for at least 14 days after arriving back in Australia;
- In Canada, some Toronto-area private schools had adopted a similar approach;
- In Hong Kong, where the early-2000s SARS virus killed 299, schools – already shut for the Lunar New Year – have been ordered to remain closed until 17 February, and face masks are everywhere on the streets;
- School closures are also being announced in China where a number of institutions have announced a delayed start after the new year holidays, including in Beijing where the spring semester start has been postponed for all schools, colleges and universities.