COVID-19: Mental Health of Students Returning From Abroad

The modern states are thoroughly connected with each other in this globalised world and this has its own consequences. Something which was believed to be rare a while ago is now common; one of them being students aspiring to study outside their own country. I am a beneficiary of this change and have the privilege of pursuing higher education in the UK.

There are negative effects too. One, that’s extremely current and grave, is the rapid spread of viruses and diseases, like the COVID-19 virus, across the world. Many global institutions and governments are in a hurry – and rightfully so – to contain the spread and minimise the damage. The most common is the domestic and international lockdown, which has restricted future travel/return of citizens from other nations after a specific date. As soon as the lockdown was announced, many students like me started searching for last minute flights, packing up their lives abroad and flying back to the safety and warmth of our own country, community and people.

However, our home countries may not have been as warm, welcoming and inclusive as one would expect or hope them to be.

Several students returning from abroad have faced alienation and hostility at their residential complexes and by neighbours. The problem primarily is the prevalent paranoia and vulnerability due to misinformation. These are trying times, but as we take extra care of ourselves, we also need to make sure we do not target, discriminate, exclude or alienate any members of the society.

I have personally been subject to such alienation when I returned home. ‘Friends’ who were otherwise in constant communication suddenly stopped interacting – and so did some family members. WhatsApp groups began buzzing with messages (and borderline threats) about keeping me and my family indoors at all costs – failure of which could lead instigate reporting to authorities.

At the airport, the government officials didn’t give me any formal notice for my quarantine period. Instead, after almost a week of my arrival, the officials came home to collect my details, and stamp me (like a piece of paper or furniture) with the quarantine notice and the end date of the period with the election ink.

Additionally, there’s a lot of misinformation about our health, accusations of us hiding our symptoms or secretly calling doctors at home, and us sneaking out – all resulting in a barrage of embarrassing phone calls where we are asked to explain ourselves for things we never did.

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We are making embarrassing – and often redundant – attempts at trying to explain our rationale, compliance with government norms, respect and concern for the health of those around us and most importantly, our innocence. However, we have come across instances of security guards being instructed to ensure that no individual from a particular flat be allowed to exit the building.

Besides, this hostility even goes beyond the government mandated two weeks of isolation for those flying back from foreign countries. We, along with our families, are being targeted every now and then and this might continue until we return to business as usual. There has been an absolute lack of solidarity and willingness to help others.

None of our family members are expected to leave the house but nobody is ready to help us buy grocery or other essential items. This is starkly contrasting with the youth-led volunteer groups in several countries; which help those with symptoms, those at risk and, those self-isolating as a precautionary measure.

Repeated calls, borderline threats and the need to constantly justify ourselves while understanding the situation – have further deteriorated our mental health and that of our families.

Moreover, social isolation has been found to be associated with poor mental health including increased risk for depression, cognitive impairment and anxiety. The social alienation is making it all the more worse in such trying times. We start feeling insecure and guilty for no reason, which fuels a sentiment of being ‘the other’ in the society.

In trying times like these, there is a desperate need to stand united, support each other and extend solidarity to those in need. We need to make concerted efforts at not alienating individuals or communities based on rumours and misinformation around us. Some media groups have been trying to target certain individuals or communities and identifying them as the main cause of the problem.

Individuals returning from outside the country, individuals attending a religious gathering before a lockdown – much like several others of different sects – or individuals like medical professionals fighting the pandemic on the frontlines; do not deserve to be mistreated.

We need to treat others with empathy and stand united – not further divided – in the the middle of a global health crisis.

Anant Saria is pursuing his Master’s in International Studies and Diplomacy at SOAS, University of London. His areas of engagement include International Politics, International Security, Humanitarian Aid and Development, Climate Change and Diplomacy.

Featured image provided by the author