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OPINIONPoliticsFebruary 27, 2020

The Covid-19 travel ban is racist and disastrous for international students

(Image: chameleonseye/Getty)
(Image: chameleonseye/Getty)

New Zealand’s travel ban on China has been extended another week. The president of the New Zealand Union of Students’ Associations argues for a student exemption.

The loss of lives and poor health caused by coronavirus is devastating. We must acknowledge the families, across the globe, who have lost loved ones or who are supporting relatives in poor health. But the Covid-19 travel ban imposed by the government on Sunday 2 February and continued on Monday 24 February is disastrous to the students, educators and staff across New Zealand’s tertiary sector.

The travel ban feeds racism. The travel ban targeted at any foreigner coming through or from China has fuelled the hysteria and misinformation that Covid-19 is a “Chinese” disease. We recognise the need to prioritise public health and safety, however, an unempathetic and unreasonable Covid-19 travel ban does not, in and of itself, mitigate the public health risks facing New Zealand. Coronavirus is a global health crisis, with confirmed cases of the virus in over 25 countries where people are not banned from travelling to New Zealand. Covid-19 cannot simply be attributed to one country and one race.

Domestically, the travel ban is responsible for spreading xenophobic and anti-Chinese sentiment towards our Chinese international and domestic students, and has uncovered deeply rooted racism such as some landlords telling Chinese students to find alternative accommodation.

The racist undertones of this travel ban were predicted by the World Health Organisation. WHO has maintained that travel bans perpetuate hostility and fear, and is therefore against their widespread use. Why has the government not listened to their recommendation?

The travel ban undermines the wellbeing of international students and staff travelling from China. Imposing a travel ban mere weeks before the academic year begins has left students and tertiary providers with the burdens and impacts of the government’s decision. The eight-day extension of the travel ban on Monday 24 February only exacerbated this uncertainty and continued to cause uncertainty for those locked out of New Zealand.

The wellbeing of students and staff has already taken a hit. International students have been left in the lurch as to whether the travel ban will affect their ability to continue their studies in New Zealand. Current students who have already invested significant time, effort and finances into their education are afraid they will be unable to continue or complete their studies. First-year students are equally concerned that they will not be able to fulfil their tertiary education goals, despite already investing in fees, accommodation and visas for 2020.

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On top of this, the travel ban will cripple our tertiary education sector. New Zealand tertiary education is supposedly publicly funded, but the travel ban has revealed the severe underfunding of the sector, and how reliant tertiary providers have become on international students to cover the financial shortfall. In 2019, it was estimated that the cumulative underfunding for universities, polytechnics, institutes of technology and wānanga was $3.7 billion. Collectively, international students provide $4.8 billion per year to counterbalance their lack of government funding.

The potential $1.5 million loss announced by Te Whare Wānanga o Murihiku, Southern Institute of Technology, and the millions of dollars of financial loss that other tertiary institutions, will have significant consequences for all members of the tertiary education community. Courses will likely be cut and staff may lose their jobs. The student experience, that which all students (domestic and international) pay thousands of dollars for each year, will be undermined.

As a result of our concerns with the Covid-19 travel ban, we are calling on the government to lift the travel ban or, at a minimum, implement a tertiary student exemption. This will allow international students from China with already issued visas to begin or continue their tertiary studies in New Zealand. International students arriving from China will be still required to undergo a health check before travelling and will be met by tertiary institution staff at the airport. They will follow the Ministry of Health self-isolation for 14 days, where they will receive a daily medical check-up and a final examination at the end of the fortnight.

Lifting the travel ban or introducing a tertiary student exemption would require proactive anti-racist communications across all tertiary campuses. There is no room for racism and xenophobia within our community and on our campuses.

The government must also provide additional financial support, an investment into targeted pastoral care for these students, and an investment in academic support. This includes making course materials and course information available electronically, relaxing enrolment and assessment deadlines, and implementing alternative arrangements for students to meet mandatory course requirements. Although the e-learning provisions are necessary, they should not be the only alternative for international students arriving back in New Zealand. The internet restrictions in China rule out the possibility that international students in China could remain at home until the virus subsides.

International students coming from China are not tourists. They are not coming here to travel, they are coming here to study and learn. These students chose to study in New Zealand because they wanted to benefit from the learning that takes place in our classroom environments, and they should not be prevented from doing so.

The government needs to act on the advice of public health experts and the World Health Organisation. They need to lift the travel ban and stop feeding the panic.

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