Opinion: Travelling home during a pandemic only adds to the fear and anxiety

The burden of uncertainty faced by international students
JACQUELINE RENEE/THE VARSITY
JACQUELINE RENEE/THE VARSITY

On March 16, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that Canada would close its borders to non-essential travel. He later announced that it would remain open to international students. The sheer scale and suddenness of Trudeau’s announcement meant that anything was possible. 

At that moment, the preventative measure didn’t affect me personally, but it was nevertheless abrupt and unexpected.

Fast forward 24 hours later, and I had packed all of my things and prepared to board a 14-hour flight across the Atlantic Ocean to Bahrain — with a 20-hour layover in Dubai. 

Everything was chaotic. I ended up missing some of my online classes, but that was the least of my concerns. I was primarily worried about getting home. Navigating a pandemic places an additional burden on international students, whose sense of belonging is threatened as the world shuts down.

Trudeau’s announcement created room for greater uncertainty than my family and I had anticipated. After all, wasn’t the situation better in Canada? Wasn’t it less dire than in the US or UK, where my school friends were? Ostensibly, yes. But, what could come next? Shutting down outbound travel? A complete lockdown? 

It is incredibly difficult to make reasoned decisions when your position as a visa-carrying foreign student is at stake and changing by the hour. For those of us who are international students and have no family or relatives in Canada, the prospect of getting stuck by yourself on a different continent for an indefinite length of time is scary. 

This is not so much a question of being safe as it is of being separated.

This precariousness of the situation was apparent on my flight. Right before it took off, the government of Mauritius closed down its borders to all commercial flights. There were a handful of passengers on the aircraft whose final destination was Mauritius, and the crew had to make arrangements to escort them off the plane and locate their luggage. 

The resulting two-hour delay was ample time for me to reflect upon the perilously changing circumstances that we are currently facing — for me to reflect on the fact that those who left the plane could have been acting as fast as they could with the information they had. Yet, they fell prey to circumstance nevertheless — and many international students did too. 

Other than the emotional and situational burden of these uncertain times and having to make swift decisions without knowing the consequences, there is a real financial burden that international students may not be ready for. Booking a flight to the opposite side of the Earth incurs a potentially devastating invoice, especially when travel is both seriously limited and in especially high demand.

International travel itself is becoming increasingly restricted and unpredictable. Certainly, these measures are necessary in order to curb the spread of the virus, but they place international students, like myself, in a dangerously awkward position. 

After my layover in Dubai, there was some confusion as to whether or not my next flight would actually go to Bahrain. This was based on a rumour, but it sparked a serious dilemma on my part. If Bahrain shut down its borders, I wouldn’t be able to go home, and I wouldn’t have been able to return to Canada. 

The mere fact that I found myself in a position to contemplate this dilemma shows that there are things international students have to consider that are particularly burdensome. I entertained the notion that my passport, which validates my citizenship and existence, might not get me anywhere. In a crisis where everyone is feeling anxious for their health and safety, I was worried about becoming displaced. 

Under ordinary circumstances, I would go to India, where I am a citizen, but on that very day, India announced that it was blocking all international flights for a week. Had I been unable to board that flight to Bahrain, I would be stuck in a limbo of international borders, like Tom Hanks in The Terminal. No one wants to be him, but under the dystopian reality of the COVID-19 pandemic, it seems eerily plausible.

Despite how dangerous it was and still is to travel internationally, I had to leave. The fact that myself and other international students still felt the compulsion to get on a plane, in spite of everything, is testament to the essentiality of being at home in a time of global crisis. 

Stuti Roy is a second-year Political Science student at Victoria College.

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