In this episode, we speak with Jenny (a pseudonym), an assistant professor in a country in Central Asia. In January 2020, she was about to conclude her maternity leave in Hungary, where her husband’s family is based. This unique life trajectory has enabled Jenny to share her observations on the contrasting and evolving beliefs, behaviour and coping strategies of peoples across national borders amid the COVID 19 global pandemic.
In January 2020, while in Budapest, Jenny was deeply concerned about her family and friends as the COVID 19 outbreak in China was getting more serious. However, she reflected that experiences of the 2003 SARS pandemic had left the people of China a heightened sense of alert, which was manifested in their strict and willing compliance with public hygienic protocols during pandemics. For instance, people adhered strictly to practices such as wearing masks, washing hands regularly, avoiding visiting public spaces, disinfecting public spaces. In comparison, she observed that in Hungary, during that period, people went about their lives in a ‘business as usual’ mode, while the mainstream media paid little attention to an outbreak that was taking place in a faraway place like China. As soon as she returned to work in late January to Central Asia, she noted that the people began to wear masks and disposable gloves in public, displaying a heightened sense of self-protection. The local government had also taken measures to reduce or stop international flights with the COVID 19 outbreak hotspots, such as China. She suggested that such strict measures might have to do with a few reasons. First, the country shares a long border with China with a large number of cross-border traders, which can facilitate easy spread of the outbreak. Second, the local government and public were concerned about its health system’s capacity in handling a pandemic as such.
Regarding impacts of the COVID 19 global pandemic on her life, Jenny revealed that she only recently finished her 9 months-long maternity leave, during which she had little academic involvement other than reviewing for some journals. She was therefore ambitious about getting back to her academic research once she returned to work, by getting childcare support from a local nanny. However, only two weeks after she returned to work, the COVID 19 outbreak had hit her city. She had to begin working from home as the university had moved its entire operation to online modes. Meanwhile, her university community had come to an agreement to stop having nannies and cleaners visit families on campus to stop further spread of the virus, while continuing to pay for their services. This means that Jenny now has to work a double ‘shift’ of taking care of her new-born baby and her academic duties. This has been a challenging task, leaving her feeling utterly exhausted, both physically and mentally. She confessed that her original plans had been disrupted significantly and she is now still getting used to these current arrangements. Meanwhile, due the COVID 19 outbreak, she felt further estranged from her families in China and in Hungary, which made her feel powerless.
As for her academic activities, she suggested that all her international conferences have been cancelled. As for conferences that were scheduled to take place in the second half of 2020, she has decided not to apply for them as the outbreak situation is still rather uncertain. Now she mainly relied on online technologies and social media to communicate with her academic colleagues. She is able to adapt to such communication modes, although she would have preferred the human touch provided by face to face communication.
This COVID 19 outbreak has made Jenny develop new research directions, especially in relation to the roles of online education amid global pandemics. In addition, she is intrigued by the implications on international higher education, no matter the economic impacts on higher education institutions, or the lived experiences of international students, especially the Chinese international students.
As a Chinese scholar working overseas, Jenny has felt hints of anti-China sentiments in her daily conversations with colleagues and friends, as well in mainstream media depiction. This has made her feel uncomfortable. And yet, she suggested that such issues cannot be easily clarified/debated in a short conversation. Therefore, she had begun to ponder over future actions if similar pandemics strike and protective mechanisms that are in place. Reflecting on her recent experiences, she has identified two major protective mechanisms. The first is the Chinese Embassy in her place of work. She has paid close attention to the daily updates of the Chinese Embassy in regard to how the Chinese government may take measures to protect its overseas citizens. The second protective mechanism is her employer.
This pandemic has also made Jenny reflect on the different values of the ‘East’ and the ‘West’. She reflected that in the beginning, it seemed that western individuals placed much more emphasis on individual freedom and rejected measures such as self-isolation and social distancing. However, as the virus further spread globally, more nuanced and diversified discussion and debates have emerged. For her personally, she has felt that this pandemic has reminded her resoundingly how closely we are connected with each other, and an individual has to shoulder great responsibility for protecting not only themselves, but also the health and welfare of the entire community, through adhering to public health protocols.