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Ringing in a lonely new year: how COVID-19 border restrictions impact students with families abroad

Sacrifices to prevent the spread — holiday plans upended for the first time
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New Year’s Eve is always extra special for Raphaella So, but not for the usual reasons. The fourth-year PhD biochemistry student doesn’t usually spend it partying with friends as the clock inches toward midnight, nor does she spend it on a date night with her boyfriend. 

Instead, New Year’s Eve is always a quiet, family affair spent with her parents at their home in Hong Kong. The evening usually starts with a hot pot dinner, and then she and her parents turn on the television to watch the New Year’s countdown and the fireworks show.

But the day isn’t just spent celebrating the end of another year. For So, December 31 is more than New Year’s Eve — it’s also her mother’s birthday. 

Despite living in Toronto for the past four years — with a busy schedule filled with lab research, schoolwork, and international conferences — So has always found her way back to Hong Kong for the holidays. She’s tried her best to never miss a New Year’s Eve celebration by her mother’s side. 

This year will be the first time she does. 

“I do miss my parents a lot,” So said, while reflecting on the prospect of not seeing her parents until next November. 

For plenty of U of T international students living in Toronto for the fall semester, the COVID-19 pandemic and Canada’s border restrictions have upended their travel plans for the holidays. Currently, the government of Canada is only permitting Canadian citizens, permanent residents, individuals registered under the Indian Act, and protected persons to enter the country. 

Some foreign nationals are allowed to enter the country under certain circumstances, such as if they have a study permit, work permit, or an immediate family member who is a Canadian citizen or permanent resident. So does have a study permit and would be able to return to Canada if she did decide to go back to Hong Kong for the winter break. However, she said that such a trip is simply not feasible. 

For international students, there could be scheduling issues, as final exam schedules mean that winter break can be around four weeks for some students this year. If So went home, she would have to quarantine for 14 days upon her arrival in Hong Kong and quarantine for another two weeks once she returns to Canada. 

Although many international students living in Toronto are unable to return home for the winter break, some Canadian citizens are also affected by the travel restrictions and will not be able to see their family over the holidays. 

Some live in regions of the country — such as the territories and Atlantic provinces — that require all arriving travellers to self-quarantine for 14 days. Others, such as Kennedy Providence — a third-year student studying biology and health and disease who holds both Canadian and Trinidadian and Tobagonian citizenship — will be unable to go home to families living overseas due to travel restrictions in their family’s country of residence. 

For the first time ever, these students will be spending winter break alone in Toronto — without any family or friends.

The challenge of crossing borders during a pandemic

Although Providence was born in Canada, she was raised — and has spent most of her life — in Trinidad and Tobago, where her family currently resides. 

Due to the government’s closure of the border, Trinidadian and Tobagonians are unable to enter the country unless they apply in advance for a special exemption. Even if a waiver is granted, however, travellers still have to quarantine for 14 days upon entry. 

But, according to Providence, that travel exemption is difficult to obtain. “It’s really, really tough to get an exemption to either leave or come into the country,” admitted Providence, who had to apply for an exemption over the summer in order to travel to Canada for the fall semester. 

Since March, all commercial flights in and out of Trinidad and Tobago have been cancelled. However, over the summer when Providence was able to secure a repatriation flight in July with help from the Canadian embassy. 

She decided to come back to Toronto this fall because she had a job secured and believed she would be more productive if she was on campus. But now, in December, all of Providence’s classes are online and her job has been paused due to COVID-19 restrictions. 

Unable to return to Trinidad and Tobago for the three-week break, Providence has resigned herself to the fact that she will be spending these holidays away from her family. 

It will be a holiday season far different from what she is used to. Providence, the oldest of three siblings, is the only member of her immediate family not in Trinidad and Tobago for the holidays. This will be her first holiday season spent away from her family — and her first Christmas in a Canadian winter.  

For the Providence family, the Christmas season is usually a big deal, involving partying, beach days, and large family gatherings. “That’s what the Christmas season is [for us],” she said. “We spend probably about seven days just visiting family — like… three households a day.”

Once Christmas is over, the celebrations for Kwanzaa begin. “On Boxing Day, we would head to my uncle’s house, and we would have a huge Kwanzaa celebration,” she reminisced. 

For Providence, the most important part of the holiday season is spending quality time with her family — something she will be unable to do this year. “My family and I are really close,” she said. “We do everything together.” 

Her mother has been trying to mail Christmas decorations and lights for her room to share the holiday spirit, but Providence said it just doesn’t feel right. In a regular year, she would be baking cookies at home with her family and dressing up in matching pajamas with her seven-year-old sister.

“Honestly, I feel kind of like I don’t deserve to celebrate Christmas this year because I’m not with them,” she said. “I’ve been kind of telling [my mother] not to send me those things because… it’ll just make me feel even worse.”

“They’re really devastated as well.”

But despite being over 4,000 kilometres from home, Providence is going to try and emulate some of her family’s traditions this winter. 

“I think I’m going to probably do a Zoom call with my entire family [on] Christmas Eve [and] Christmas day,” she said. “I’m going to also try to cook a Trinidadian Christmas meal to make it feel a bit more like home.”

Still, this holiday season is going to be much more quiet than usual. Although she lives in a house in Toronto with a few friends, all of them will be leaving to go home for the break.

A few of her friends living in Toronto extended an invitation for her to visit them, but Providence declined. “I don’t want to feel like I’m imposing, especially with all the COVID restrictions,” she said.

She plans to either stay at her house by herself or spend it with her one uncle who lives in Canada. 

“It’s really saddening,” she said, reflecting on what the next few weeks will look like. The past few years during the last weeks of the semester, the thought of going home to Trinidad and Tobago helped her get through the final round of coursework and exams. 

“Usually, I would have something at the end of the semester to look forward to,” Providence said. “I would be pushing [and] working to get all my finals done… looking forward to that one plane ride.”

The loneliness of a pandemic holiday season

Likewise, in a normal year, So would also be looking forward to her trip back home during the final weeks of the fall semester. In the first week of December, So would usually be busy reaching out to her friends in Hong Kong to schedule meet-ups when she arrived, filling in appointments on her computer’s calendar. 

“Before I even arrive, half of my schedule is set,” So said. When she would land in Hong Kong, she would hit the ground running — splitting her time equally between family and friends. Her first day would be jam-packed with plans, usually beginning with breakfast with her parents, then lunch with friends, and dinner with different friends in a different neighbourhood.

Other than missing her family, So acknowledged that it will be difficult not seeing her friends in person this year. “I really only get to see them that one time, as a group,” she said. 

Some of her meet-ups will be virtual this year — such as a karaoke event with friends. Still, it won’t be the same. 

The holidays, especially, will be much lonelier than usual for So, who has been living alone since February. “This pandemic… makes you feel low, especially if you live alone,” she admitted. 

The loneliness of living alone during the pandemic has been compounded by the fact that So hasn’t been able to see her boyfriend since the beginning of March. Thomas Fung, her boyfriend of three years, is also from Hong Kong, but currently lives and works in Texas. 

Since Fung is neither a Canadian citizen nor a permanent resident, he is unable to enter the country. And because So does not hold Canadian citizenship or permanent residency either, Fung does not qualify for the exemption that allows extended family members, such as partners, to unite with their loved ones in Canada. 

Since So does have a study permit, she could visit her boyfriend in Texas and return to Toronto, but she said that it would be too risky since she works in a hospital lab with other researchers. “I’m not going to… put everyone’s lives at risk,” she said. 

Although Fung and So are used to maintaining a long-distance relationship, having lived in different countries for most of their three-year relationship, So acknowledged that this is the longest stretch of time that they have not seen each other in person. 

Amid the pandemic, So and Fung have been keeping in contact through video calls and daily text messages. Some days, the text messages are just an exchange of cat memes. Other days, it could be an intense conversation about events happening around the world. So acknowledges that it is nice knowing that there is someone there to listen to her. 

According to So, because her relationship with Fung has mainly been long distance, she’s used to text messages and video calls in lieu of in-person meet-ups. “In that sense, it has not changed that much,” she said. “But of course… not being able to see [him] in person [still] really sucks.”

They usually saw each other once every three months during long weekends when So could fly down to the US or Fung could come up to Canada. Now, the two are unsure when they’ll get to see each other in person again.

And that uncertainty, according to Fung, has made this ordeal most difficult. 

“Before [the pandemic] we would kind of know — approximately, at least — when we would see each other again. It’s something to look forward to,” Fung said. “Now, there’s none of that. Not knowing when we’re going to see each other again — [that’s] the tough part.” 

The toll on mental health

Over the course of the pandemic, So has noticed a decline in her mental health. “I’m somewhere between yellow and orange,” she said, noting where she lies on the mental health continuum. This spectrum spans five colours: green, yellow-green, yellow, orange, and red, with red signifying those in crisis.

Her productivity has also declined. After working the morning shift in her lab, she often feels unmotivated to work in the afternoons. “It’s the things that don’t have specific deadlines… and the self-improving things that have been difficult to do,” she said. Most days, she finds herself watching Netflix after work.

But So has come to accept that her productivity and drive will decline. Right now, she’s just trying to get through the pandemic.

“I am no longer pressuring myself to put out a complete manuscript draft, write my thesis, or pick up a new coding language,” she wrote in a blog post. “I am trying to eat well without frequent grocery trips, exercise without leaving my home, maintain basic human contact without seeing anyone in person, and hopefully get some work done in the process.”

Her decline in mental health has been exacerbated by the isolation, being away from friends and family for months on end. But it has also been compounded by the fear of contracting COVID-19 with no one near her to turn to. 

“With my local friends moving back with their families, the fear that I will suffer alone in a foreign country became very real,” she wrote. “When Trudeau closed down inbound international travel, my parents in Hong Kong called me and said, ‘Be careful, because we cannot be there for you if you get sick.’ ”

Despite the position she is in, So understands the need for travel restrictions. “Because I’m a biologist — and from a public health perspective — I can see why,” she said. “Because the more international travel there is, there’s more risk.”

Providence echoes the same sentiment. “I am very, very [much] in support of the restrictions,” she said. “I think we need to crack down on this virus, once and for all. Yes, it’s putting people in very, very dire, unfortunate situations. But I mean anything to stay alive, at this point — and keep the population healthy.”

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