How Malaysian students overseas are coping with Covid-19

A woman on Westminster bridge wearing a protective face mask as the spread of Covid-19 continues, in London, Britain. (Reuters pic)

PETALING JAYA: As the Covid-19 crisis is now a deadly global pandemic, many Malaysian students studying overseas have been caught between a rock and a hard place.

Some have been ordered to leave their universities and return to Malaysia while others continue to stay abroad to continue their classes, albeit through online lessons.

FMT spoke to five students studying in four countries to learn how they were coping during these tough times.

Note that all names have been changed to protect the students’ privacy.

The United Kingdom

Don had been studying for four years in a prestigious university in England when the Covid-19 crisis started to escalate in Europe.

It helped that his brother was serving as a doctor in Cardiff Hospital, which kept him updated on the situation in the UK.

His university was slow to react to the crisis at first, and when it finally did, it simply confused the Malaysian student community with its mixed messages.

“Many colleges were giving differing messages at the start. Some asked us to stay put first, some said, ‘If you can leave, then leave.’”

On March 18, his university suddenly took drastic action, declaring a red alert and advising international students to return home immediately.

Don left for home on March 17, after witnessing shoppers flooding into grocery stores to prepare for potential lockdowns.

Also in the UK is Lloyd, studying in a university in central England for the past six months.

His university’s facilities have all been shut down, with personal contact a no-no due to the pandemic.

Everything, from classes to exams, has shifted online, Lloyd said.

He is rather cynical of the British government’s early inaction, saying, “They were not taking it seriously. The UK is slowly burning and becoming the next Italy. No checks at checkpoints among other things.”

Asian students have also reported racist abuse, being scolded for wearing masks and mocked by bigots who fake coughing around them.

“Malaysian Chinese have it worse as we’re usually grouped together with mainland Chinese,” said Lloyd.


Two people read the closure notice in the window of The Norseman pub, as bars across Ireland close voluntarily to curb the spread of Covid-19, in Dublin, Ireland. (Reuters pic)

Wayne, a fourth-year medical student studying in Ireland has also returned to Malaysia due to the Covid-19 crisis.

His university was professional about the pandemic, eventually announcing that international students could return home without risking their studies.

He left just as Covid-19 cases in Ireland rose to over 400, with the Irish government shutting down institutions and recruiting retired healthcare workers to return to work.

Even as store shelves were swept clean thanks to panic buying and classes shifted online, Wayne remained positive about the matter.

“We were optimistic in the beginning. Everyone was concerned about how the final assessment would be done and if we can get home soon.

“The university’s timely and frequent updates really helped us in dealing with the situation and making informed decisions.”

Due to his field of study, he was kept updated on the crisis through the World Health Organisation (WHO) and scientific journals.

“Medical students must be advocates to help the medical and public health community spread truthful and practical information that will address people’s concerns and not cause undue panic,” he said.

The United States of America

Shoppers line up outside a Costco to buy supplies in Honolulu, Hawaii. (Reuters pic)

Studying for the past eight months in a university in Hawaii, Rachel is one if not the only Malaysian there, leaving her to stay updated on the situation back home through Google News.

The Covid-19 crisis has led to the postponement and even cancellation of many events inside and outside her university.

University students who were expected to graduate this spring semester will not be able to have their graduation ceremony, she said.

The Honolulu Festival that Rachel had been looking forward to was also cancelled, as were other public events throughout the state.

Panic buying has also taken hold in the island chain, with pasta and rice, in particular, being scooped up quickly by desperate shoppers.

“I saw people queuing up for toilet paper at Sam’s Club. I’ve since stocked up on groceries but have not been able to get hand sanitiser and face masks.”

“All those are out of stock every time I try to find them.”

She also notes that wearing face masks constantly seems to be a foreign concept to Americans, and she has seen only Chinese students donning them so far.


Customers wearing face masks are seen next to empty shelves of the toilet and kitchen paper section at a Carrefour supermarket, following the Covid-19 outbreak, in Taipei, Taiwan. (Reuters pic)

While Taiwan may be close to the epicentre of the Covid-19 pandemic, the number of cases there remain relatively low due to quick government action.

According to Julius, a Malaysian student in Taipei, the Taiwanese government did not bother to wait for the WHO’s instructions and relied on prior experience with the Sars outbreak 17 years ago.

“They banned flights from China relatively early compared to other countries,” he said.

Daily life in Taiwan has not particularly changed much, he said, as the situation was stable and the Taiwanese are comfortable with wearing masks anyway.

Aside from online courses, students are also encouraged to take their body temperature daily to prevent infections within the university.

While the situation in Taiwan is under control, the Malaysian student community there remains concerned about the crisis back in Malaysia.

“Most of us are scared of the outbreak. We are more worried about our friends and family members in Malaysia as the virus hit Malaysia more seriously, relative to Taiwan.”