Jakarta. While Covid-19 numbers explode in Indonesia and settle in Australia, the fate of the international students caught in between remains unclear.
With the Australian government offering little assistance to struggling students, some are forced to return home where Covid-19 cases are nearing the 1 million mark. The real number is likely to be even higher due to the limited testing capacity. In comparison, Australia's harsh lockdowns have kept the virus outbreak relatively under control.
The Australian government did not extend the financial support to the international students. With temporary non-essential business closures, sources of income for many vanished overnight. As a result, Indonesian students in Melbourne were left with a decision: to remain in lockdown away from family, or to return home at a greater risk of contracting the virus.
For communications student Laurensia Hanusin, the completion of her final year of studies kept her in Australia. Following her father’s wedding in March, he contracted the virus and sadly passed away in June 2020. Indonesia's mortality rate from Covid-19 stands at 3.1 percent, higher than the global rate of 2.4 percent.
Permanently returning home in the last two weeks has seen Laurensia adapt to the ways of locals in her hometown of Palembang. The fictitious state of normalcy in Palembang, which seems to be going about business as usual, provides a stark contrast to the strict regulations imposed in Australia.
“I was scared, but I’m getting used to it,” Laurensia said.
“I think it’s hard if Indonesia wanted to try and do what Australia did. Obviously, it’s much better in Australia because the government is able to give people money to stay at home. But in Indonesia, it seems impossible.”
Human Nutrition student and Jakarta resident, Kristina Maria, decided to leave amid Melbourne’s lockdown in September as the prospect of transitioning back to onsite learning drifted further out of reach.
“We had a discussion, me and my family, about whether I should go back or not because I want to continue my studies and do my post-grad, but in the end my dad decided that I should see my grandparents,” Kristina said.
With vulnerable relatives, Kristina continues to largely act as though in a Melbourne-equivalent lockdown for the safety of those close to her.
For Kristina, watching case numbers increase globally in July meant that the online learning set up would be continued for the foreseeable future. Reaching the conclusion that she may as well study from home with her family as the second semester was confirmed to be online, Kristina went through the logistical nightmare of overseas travel mid-pandemic.
“I didn’t think there’d be any flights,” she said.
“It was a bit confusing as well about whether I wanted to go back home or not because I knew the situation back home is actually much worse than in Melbourne."
As Covid-19 first reached Australia's shores last March, Prime Minister Scott Morrison flatly informed international students that “it’s time to go home”. A heavy statement considering that international students contribute $40 billion AUD (around $30.957 billion) to the Australian economy and support 250,000 jobs.
A sudden lack of income or financial support closed the doors of opportunity on students hoping to commence further studies. For those who were forced to return home, the Morrison government has still not clearly indicated when it will be possible for them to return.
In reflection of their international programs throughout the pandemic, the University of Sydney has prioritised communication above all else.
"[We keep students] updated through emails and phone calls, and have run a number of surveys to gauge how they are coping," the university's spokesperson told the Jakarta Globe.
Support on offer includes financial assistance, learning support, mental health and wellbeing support, peer-to-peer support and technology assistance.
The Australian National University (ANU) offered the ANU Vice Chancellor’s International scholarship, made up of 200 awards with a maximum value of $25,000 AUD, thirty of which were reserved for students from Southeast Asia, including Indonesia. In addition, ANU offered the ANU Global Diversity scholarship to attract students from across diverse regions of the world, encompassing up to 100 awards worth $18,750 per year for up to four years.
An RMIT University spokesperson shared with Jakarta Globe that RMIT’s Student Hardship Assistance and Equity Scholarship funds were also expanded in 2020 to provide up to $10 million in support to domestic and international students impacted by Covid-19.
Each university which provided comment attested to their commitment to collaborating with their respective state or territory’s government to support the prompt return of international students when safe to do so.
The Australian government has allowed enrolled international students to lodge a further student visa application free of charge if their studies were affected by the pandemic. Students who work in the health sector have been permitted to work in excess of 40 hours per fortnight.
In order to receive an additional visa, students must demonstrate that their studies were deferred due to travel restrictions, they were forced to reduce their study load to part-time, or they were unable to complete required work-based training. This mercy does not extend to students who have failed a course, deferred for personal reasons or voluntarily reduced their study load.
Australia's Acting Minister for Immigration, Citizenship, Migrant Services and Multicultural Affairs Alan Tudge said “in making these changes, we have been guided by the principles that the health of Australians is key, but that international students should not be further disadvantaged by Covid-19."
A large number of international students may be unable to apply for visas or have fees waived if they are unable to explicitly demonstrate the impact of Covid-19 on their studies as stipulated in the above conditions.
This could very well be the case for those who are suffering poor mental health, likely under unforeseen financial strain, undertaking full-time study and who are away from friends and family who are likely suffering the effects of the pandemic.
Though the academic futures of Indonesian students studying abroad in Australia remains uncertain, the socio-cultural impacts of the coronavirus are cause for concern as the pandemic has seen Australia become increasingly insular.
For Sheirine Gunawan, an Asian Studies major, concerns over the racially motivated attacks toward university students in April near her apartment in Melbourne were the catalyst for her return home to Jakarta. Two Singaporean students were verbally and physically attacked by two Caucasian females, being called “Coronavirus” and being told to “go back to China”.
Kristina also experienced similiar discrimination first-hand. When walking along a narrow pathway with a friend, a Caucausian woman yelled at them to stay away from her and maintain social distance, despite the difficulty in doing so, given the pathway’s design and the fact that all were properly wearing masks.
Now that Australia has largely contained its virus outbreak, the return of international students to its shores hinges on the effectiveness of the national vaccination rollout. In Australia, vaccinations will be free for all international students according to the Australian Covid-19 vaccination policy.
However, given the unpredictability of the pandemic, it is impossible to say when significant numbers of students can return to Australia.
In the meantime, Australian tertiary institutions are focusing on providing a variety of teaching modes to accommodate the various circumstances that international students find themselves in.
What awaits students beyond that remains a mystery.