How COVID-19 Impacts my Semester Abroad in Taiwan

The coronavirus has interrupted travel plans and study abroad programs around the world. Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels.

By  May 16, 2020

As a biology student, I have always been fascinated by pandemics. But I never expected to live through one—especially while studying abroad.

I’ve never experienced a hurricane, but it sure feels like I’m in the eye of the storm. A few months ago, the coronavirus, more specifically COVID-19, was the last thing on my mind. Now I can’t go a day without hearing about its staggering effects on the world. As a biology student I am intimately familiar with virology and diseases; I’ve always been fascinated by learning about past pandemics, but I never could have imagined that I would be living in the middle of one.

Moving abroad during a pandemic

I moved to Taiwan at the beginning of February, when the rest of the world was watching the pandemic rapidly unfold from a safe distance. My loved ones were worried about my travels to the "red zone," but I brushed off their concerns, trusting that the virus would fade as quickly as it had appeared. I had been planning my study abroad semester for more than a year, and I wasn't about to let the fear of an unknown virus get in the way of my adventure.

My loved ones were worried about my travels to the "red zone," but I brushed off their concerns. I had been planning my study abroad semester for over a year, and I wasn’t about to let the fear of an unknown virus get in the way of my adventure.

Since the moment I arrived in Taipei, a surgical mask has become the most important component of my wardrobe. It was unnerving at first to see everyone around me with their faces covered up, but I quickly adapted. Instead of relying on a smile to convey a silent apology or greeting, I have learned to bow my head and lower my gaze, as is the custom here. I wash my hands religiously and never leave my dorm without hand sanitizer. I have also perfected the art of fitting my mask so that my breath doesn’t fog up my glasses. As I am not a citizen of Taiwan and don’t have an ARC (Alien Resident Certificate), I have not been able to buy masks here. Luckily, since I was aware of the shortages of surgical masks and disinfectants beforehand, I stocked up before my departure.

How everyday life has changed in Taiwan

Taiwan is a haven in the centre of a viral typhoon. Compared to other parts of the world, we have experienced relatively few interruptions to daily life, and Taiwanese citizens are calm and respectful when it comes to dealing with the virus. Masks are rationed by the government, and groceries and toilet paper are in ample supply. People go to work, students attend their classes, and businesses remain open. However, extra precautions are taken on all fronts. Most people wear masks in public, and this practice has become mandatory in medical institutions and on inter-city transportation.

Besides the adjustments to my personal style and hygiene, the first major development that affected my studies abroad was the postponement of the academic semester by two weeks. I relished this extra vacation time, but it introduced an element of uncertainty that has only intensified as the semester progressed. Most businesses check your temperature and disinfect your hands with alcohol before allowing you entry, and my university is no different. Every day is a gamble to see whether your temperature is low enough to attend class. Within the first week of school, building access was restricted to one entrance where a staff member measures your temperature and gives you a sticker to show that you have been cleared for the day. You can show this sticker at the entrance of other buildings on campus to skip the line, and you are required to have one to enter the dorms.

Recently, our campus was further restricted to only allow faculty and students entry upon presentation of a school ID card. Visitors are no longer allowed in the dorms either. Clubs and other activities have been suspended, and the gym is closed to all students who are not on a school sports team. Classes with over 100 students have been moved online, and our teachers have set up online classrooms for us in anticipation of the school being shut down.

Despite these restrictions, or maybe because of them, I am extremely grateful to be here. I don’t take the privilege of being able to attend school in this chaotic time for granted. How can I complain about having to wake up for my 8 o’clock Chinese class when I know that next week I may not even be able to leave my room? Thankfully, my fellow exchange students and I are safe in Taiwan; we are young and healthy and living alone, and our primary concern is for our families back at home. 

Why I decided to stay overseas

Despite these realities, many international students have returned home due to pressure from their home institutions and limited travel options. I was encouraged to come home by my university and the federal government only two weeks into the school year. At that point I would have lost a semester in my education and thousands of dollars in tuition, living expenses and plane tickets. I would have also been kept in mandatory quarantine for two weeks, followed by self-isolation in a country that is on lockdown. But I am currently in one of the safest places in the world, on the adventure of a lifetime in a country that I have fallen hopelessly in love with. So, I decided to stay. It’s very possible that I will not be able to come home at the end of my semester, and in such a case I plan on applying to extend my stay abroad. It’s unnerving, not knowing when or if I will be able to see my family and friends again, but I am optimistic about the combined forces of Earth’s inhabitants.

In the meantime, I am making the most of my time here. I have grown closer to the international students that remain, as well as my Taiwanese friends who have been a tremendous support in these confusing times. We are still here, we are grateful, and we are doing our best to keep each other safe.

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Rebecca Janacek

Becca is a Slovak Canadian doing an exchange semester at National Taiwan University in Taipei, where she is studying Biology and Mandarin Chinese. She is passionate about the environment and loves going on adventures!

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