Image Courtesy: Hindustan Times
Recent reports of 300 Indianshaving traveled abroad to take China-made vaccines have put the plight of international students in the limelight again. It has become a trend in Wechat, messaging platform, at the end of every semester, and before the commencement of a new Semester, the International students’ hopes of their possible return to their study destination summits to a new high only to befall.
On June 5th, 2021, Indian Ministry of External Affairs Spokesperson Mr. Arindam Bagchi put out a tweet notice; it read, ‘Indian students studying abroad who are struck in India owing to Covid-19 pandemic restrictions and mobility issues can send their coordinates.’ The tweet’s reply section was stormed by Indian students now facing travel ban from Australia, Germany, and China. The hashtag #Take us back to Aus #Take us back to China # Take us back to School #Justice to International Students and so on was shared in solidarity.
Approximately 4000 Indian students are awaiting to return to Germany and 22,000 self-financed Indian medical students to China. Among the distraught Indian students crying for help and government intervention, the China-bound Indian medical students are the worst hit by the pandemic-related travel ban on Student Visa, by the sheer number and wait period. What causes frustration among the students is the unwillingness of several country officials to address the situation and unwillingness to share the cause & rationale behind such an indefinite ban.
Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Miss Hua Chunying, when asked about the Indian student’s return, said, ‘I believe similar situations exist all over the world. To my knowledge, many Chinese students have invested heavily in studies overseas, but due to the sudden COVID-19 outbreak, they are unable to pursue their education as planned, and a lot of them have to stay at home for online courses. Such a situation is not what we want to see.’ It underpins the overall crisis that several first-world countries such as Germany and Australia are yet to open their borders for International students. Although these countries were late to close their Air-traffic in 2020 and professed liberal values of free borders and vaccine passports, it appears they do so only to serve the mercantilist interest of the state.
Students have been disenchanted as neither their universities nor respective Government’s Foreign and Education ministries have considered the financial and emotional burden these students face. Several students express on online messaging platforms that this apathy towards their plea is inhumane and schadenfreude in nature. They have created solidarity groups and pages in social media pages such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. The pandemic does not have a ceasefire, and one can not hope the mutation will cease. Hence, the student community’s only hope had been a ‘vaccine passport.’
The United States has relaxed the restrictions, allowing International students to attend the fall semester offline. However, it mandates the in-bound International students to get WHO-approved vaccines, which restricts India’s Covaxin and Russia’s Sputnik. Russia had invited International Students back to resume their studies in February 2021. Russia mandates an RT-PCR test and not a vaccine.
China has excluded those who get the Chinese vaccine from the provision of obtaining the PU letter( an invitation letter from local Foreign Affairs authorities) to enter China, but it does not mention students in the category. China has also included American Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson vaccines, for inbound passengers, but not Indian and Russian indigenous vaccines. Regarding International Student, Chinese authorities seem content to recirculate the 2020 NOTICE, which discontinued existing student visas and barred students entry.
The mood in the WeChat groups of Indian and other foreign nationals is ‘despair.’ The Indian Mission in Beijing monitors and addresses the queries sent to them & posted tagging them in groups. Nevertheless, they seem to have less information regarding the return process and availability of Chinese vaccines in India for China-bound Indian students. Since it has been over a year, many students have taken jobs to meet the daily expenses. However, they might have to leave the job when they get a notice of return, and their concern is that at least the respective universities and governments must give clarity regarding the return date, a tentative time frame so that they can re-organize their finances, and career plans with peace of mind. Many medical students have come under pressure as the Medical Council of India does not recognize online classes, forcing them to drop out of college. Some students have expressed psychological stress, and some graduate students are left feeling like displaced refugees as they could not access their property in dormitories. Some ask, ‘Is it a crime to return to family?’. The consensus among students is that they have the right to know when they can resume their studies to plan de-registering, discontinuing, or continue the Online study mode.
It appears the only Chinese person sympathetic towards the Indian student’s plight is Henry Huiyao Wang, Counselor at the State Council of China. In an interview with Prasar Bharati, he said that the student body acts like goodwill ambassadors of China, and the indefinite ban on International students is damaging china’s reputation as an attractive study destination. At present, with a spike in new Covid19 variant cases in Guangdong provinces, the chances of facilitating students’ return look thin. The student community must take into cognizance the mammoth task ahead for the Chinese government in testing and vaccinating its vast population. However, its time for China to reconsider its existing policy of ‘indefinite ban,’ as it is antithetic to President Xi Jinping’s call for a ‘trustworthy, lovable and respectable image of China. China has a vast infrastructure capacity to inoculate and quarantine the inbound International students. Its reluctance to do so is raising concerns of ‘what kinda world order China wants?’. Speaking at Boao Forum of Asia, President Xi spoke of seeking a fairer world order, but the travel ban on International students(except South Korean students) and the restriction on Indian(Covaxin) and Russian(Sputnik) vaccine are incongruent with his speech.
While each country has a right to protect its citizens from any imported virus, they can not ignore the human rights of those who sought access to good education in their land. The contempt and disregard to the fundamental right to access education and property/belonging amounts to violation. Currently, the European Union, in its COVID19 Passport scheme, does not include Chinese, Indian and Russian vaccines. It is time for world nations to take a leaf out of the Chinese visionary and Statesman Deng Xiaoping’s dictum, ‘It does not matter whether it is Sputnik or Pfizer as long as one is vaccinated against Covid19.’
(Monika Sethuraman is a Ph.D. candidate at the Central China Normal University, Wuhan, P.R.C. The views expressed are those of the author and does not reflect the views of C3S)