Covid-19 gives overseas Vietnamese students hard time

By Thanh Hang, Duong Tam   March 20, 2020 | 05:00 pm PT
Vietnamese studying abroad are unable to relax with Covid-19 cases on the rise, though locals appear unfazed.

6 a.m. Wednesday, France local time, Linh opened her phone to learn the country had recorded 7,700 Covid-19 cases.

She sighed when seeing Île-de-France, a region in north-central France where she stays, had 1,000 infections.

But Linh, who came to France in 2018 to study medicine at the University of Paris-Sud, did not feel surprised since the number of cases had been rising rapidly.

To cope with the pandemic spread, France had deployed 100,000 police and gendarmes across the country Tuesday to ensure total lockdown in a bid to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Yet before the national lockdown, many locals failed to take the threat seriously, Linh said.

"Even when authorities had applied different measures to limit infection, I and many other overseas Vietnamese students were worried because the French did not stop gathering in public."

"People hung out even more in the absence of work and school," Linh said, explain her French friends had still been asking her to join them.

People gather at Montmartre Hill in Paris right before France declared its national lockdown on March 17, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Dieu Linh.

People gather at Montmartre Hill in Paris right before France declared its national lockdown on March 17, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Dieu Linh.

For her Vietnamese friends, however, the story was much different. Many had immediately returned to Vietnam after learning the news that their home country would restrict entry.

Linh wanted to go home just as much, but was scared by the high risk of infection on planes and at airports.

She also worried it could prove hard to return to France once visiting Vietnam during this period, which could interrupt her courses.

Eventually, she decided to stay put.

"I've told myself everything is gonna be just fine if I don't go out and follow all the needed steps for prevention," Linh affirmed.

Prior to the stringent lockdown, Linh had made some time to stockpile food, water and several essential products. She has limited her time on public transport, switching to walking if she could, and opted for shipping service.

In studying, she has turned to online classes since the start of March, since her school shut down due to the pandemic.

Online classes are not new at the University of Paris-Sud and cause her little trouble. What makes her most uncomfortable is that she can no longer frequent the school’s library, her favorite place to study.

Vu Ngan, a 23-year-old from Hanoi, is studying in Leeds, a city in the northern English county of Yorkshire.

She was alarmed Tuesday as the number of local Covid-19 patients had jumped to 19 and almost 2,000 nationwide.

By the time she learned the news, she said, the U.K. had not come up with any specific plans to cope with the pandemic aside from asking its citizens to wash their hands frequently, and to self-isolate at home in case they experienced any symptoms of the pneumonia disease. Local authorities even demanded people refrain from attending hospitals or clinics for coronavirus tests without prior doctor approval.

What worried her more is that schools were still operating as usual and that locals did not want to wear face masks in public, one possible solution recommended to prevent spreading infection.

Ngan and her Vietnamese friends have frequently faced discrimination while wearing masks outdoors. Some even stamped them with the term "coronavirus," before coughing and spitting in their direction.

"My parents have repeatedly told me to go home. They’re afraid that in case I contract the virus, I would not receive timely treatment as in Vietnam."

"I’m still wavering between returning and staying on because my school is still open, and if I go home now, I can’t tell when I could get back in the U.K., not to mention the high risk of infection on the plane," Ngan said.

For now, she has made new rules for herself: except for school, she only goes out when it is truly necessary.

In Baden-Württemberg State of southwest Germany, 23-year-old Mai from Vietnam’s northern Nam Dinh Province has been busy searching for a ticket back to her country.

"For now, only Vietnam Airlines operates Vietnam-Germany flights, with all tickets from now until early April sold out or costing at least VND35 million ($1,500) each. I clearly could not afford that."

An empty street of Baden-Wurttemberg, Germany on March 18, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Mai

An empty street of Baden-Wurttemberg, Germany, March 18, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Mai.

Germany recorded over 9,300 infections and 26 deaths by Wednesday. Three days prior, the country had shut down all schools.

Mai locked herself at home.

When the pandemic first reached Europe, she had stockpiled food, sanitizer and masks, but the fear of being discriminated against or even assaulted whilst wearing a mask in public has prevented her from going out.

She is also afraid overseas students like her would not be "treated as devotedly as in Vietnam" if contracting the virus.

"My health insurance here only covers a small part of the health check fee while the cost for hospitalization is huge. If I get infected, I will not have enough money for treatment," she said.

Vietnamese returning from Europe fill out health declaration form before getting Covid-19 testing upon arriving at Noi Bai International Airport, Hanoi, March 18, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Giang Huy.

Vietnamese returning from Europe fill out health declaration form before getting Covid-19 testing upon arriving at Noi Bai International Airport, Hanoi, March 18, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Giang Huy.

According to the Ministry of Education and Training, around 190,000 Vietnamese are studying abroad, most of them in the U.S., with 29,000, followed by Canada with 21,000, Australia and New Zealand with 30,000, Japan with 15,000, South Korea with 14,000, the U.K. with 12,000, Italy and China with 11,000 each, Germany with 7,500 and France with 6,500.

Minh, a senior at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, the U.S., has been worried about both her physical and mental health.

Two weeks ago, several students at Vanderbilt were confirmed positive and American media all covered the news. Yet people around her still went to restaurants and the gym like nothing had happened.

As the school shut down, her friends even asked her to join them at a bar.

Only after President Trump declared a national emergency over the new coronavirus pandemic last Friday, did people in the U.S. change their behavior and reduce public outings.

After her school started running online classes, Minh could not decide if she should stay or return to Vietnam.

If she stays, there will be no family members nearby should she get sick but if she goes home, it may mean she would have to wake at 3-4 a.m. each morning for online classes.

Aside from online classes, another problem for her is the visa.

If she flies to Vietnam and for some reason, could not re-enter the U.S. before May 2, she could have trouble obtaining a new visa, miss her graduation ceremony and face the threat of losing a job she got in New York.

Eventually, she decided to go back to Vietnam because "there is nothing more important than your health, both physically and mentally."

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