Caught unprepared in London

How Covid-19 took international students in London by surprise

When the virus first broke out in Wuhan, for an international student in London it was just another news headline; almost a running joke among classmates at the time, of a doom that existed only on the other side of the globe, as many crises do.

It was not until after two weeks of taking the matter non-seriously that it started to appear for many in London as a reality. When universities started closing in London, I was cautious since mine had for the time being decided to stay open. After all there had been only two cases in the area. Two weeks later there were 66 local cases, such is the nature of this virus. It spreads faster than one can prepare or comprehend.

The university released a statement that if students, especially those which had to travel internationally to reach home, should start making arrangements to do so. It was apparent that the situation was getting worse, especially as my Scandinavian friends were already rushing to get back home, due to the threat of their borders closing soon. I too decided to start packing my belongings and booked a flight for a week later.

It was on the morning of March 18, a Wednesday, that I had an article forwarded to me on social media, stating that in order to arrive in Pakistan on the coming Saturday, when I originally had my flight, I would need a medical clearance certificate to prove that I was not carrying the virus as I entered the country. Panicked and not anticipating this sudden change I proceeded to call up various facilities in the city: the local GP- general practitioner, the local hospital as well as private practices. It turned out that the NHS was not testing patients unless their symptoms were obvious. Knowing that I would not be able to enter Pakistan beyond Saturday, I started looking for other flight options and was lucky enough to find a seat on a PIA aircraft leaving that night. Proceeding to pack up the rest of my belongings and reaching Heathrow in a matter of a few hours, I consider as a personal achievement and quite a narrow call.

Later on while discussing the situation with other international Pakistani students in the UK, I discovered I was hardly the only one to have gone through such a predicament.

Raisa Zahid for instance, a final year student studying international relations at University of Westminster, had to stay back in London. Luckily, she had some family in the city, and immediately stocked up on food before the official lockdown took place in London, although she did face trouble finding milk and eggs. “I haven’t seen any handwash left in the shops since this thing started,” she says. She also says working from home has affected her ability to properly focus on work. This is true for many students, as they cannot access the library, although online classes are taking place for many.

Even for accessing previously scheduled GP appointments alternative measures are being taken. “I have celiac disease,” Raisa says. “I was supposed to have a check-up and routine blood tests done but instead had a phone appointment with my doctor because she said it wasn’t feasible to come into the hospital in these circumstances”

Like Raisa, Arsalan Ali Bhatti, who is doing his post-graduation from Kingston University, could not manage to return to Pakistan before the borders closed. He is currently being forced to quarantine in his small dorm room, with limited money as he can no longer work in the country. He managed to get his hands on essentials such as food and sanitisers when the lockdown first started, but as he doesn’t cook much and mostly relies on restaurant food, the lockdown is becoming a massive challenge for him.

Rehman Jatoi, who studies civil engineering at City University of London, had fretted about how since he’s in his final year, the months of March and April are crucial to him since final year students have to submit their dissertation and final course work. He, too, has been finding it difficult to work properly since he has been left with fewer resources and is not able to complete his work up to par.

He managed to get back to Pakistan before the borders closed, but had to do so at a steep cost as his ticket too was bought at the last minute, in the fear that he would not be able to return home for many months unless he did so right away.

He managed to find a flight for Islamabad even though his family lives in Karachi. Domestic flights in Pakistan ceased after he landed and thus he had to drive for 15 hours to reach Karachi so that he could be with his family.

Ibrahim Shah, who is studying business management at Kingston University, too, was lucky enough to be back to Pakistan before the borders closed. “I took the last flight from England to Pakistan,” he says. “I came back home to Islamabad and self-quarantined for two weeks.”

While all universities in London have closed, many continue to do their course work online. For those still stuck in the UK because they did not manage to get a last-minute ticket back to Pakistan, life as an international student under lockdown continues to be a challenge.

The writer is studying journalism at the Kingston University.

How Covid-19 took international students in London by surprise