Post lockdown, African students in China still need support

Many of the African students who remained in China during the height of the COVID-19 outbreak are still unable to return home because of the lockdowns now taking effect in Africa. University World News spoke to Serufusa Sekidde, a medical doctor and a senior New Voices fellow at the Aspen Institute in the United States who studied in China and has been supporting African students in China during the COVID-19 epidemic, about the kind of assistance those students now need.

UWN: Even though COVID-19 now seems to be less of a threat in China and lockdowns have been lifted, African students still cannot come home because most African countries are under lockdown. How should they be helped?

Sekidde: Through their embassies, African governments should continue to support the students in China for at least the next three months. The whole world is under incredible financial pressure and there are now limited opportunities for African students to earn money for upkeep in China. On the other hand, with the lockdowns in their home countries, their parents may not be as able to send them money. Government should step in with a stimulus package.

UWN: Where will governments get the money from?

Sekidde: Any loans or grants the governments get from global institutions like the World Bank's Pandemic Bond or the International Monetary Fund (IMF) should have a portion earmarked for African students in China.

UWN: What else can African governments do for African students in China?

Sekidde: African governments need to work more strategically with African students to ensure their interests are not just protected but actively promoted. Most embassies are focused on developing business ties and opportunities but they need to realise that supporting their students is a long-term strategic way of supporting business connections between their countries and China. Many former students like myself end up promoting invaluable cultural and business connections following graduation.

UWN: Do you think African students need psycho-social or mental health support given what they have gone through?

Sekidde: African students need not just the moral support they get from knowing their embassies have their welfare in mind, but also mental health support, at least for the next few months. This has been a traumatic and difficult period. The strain on mental health has been compounded by new worries about how their families back in Africa are now dealing with a rising epidemic.

The embassies need to provide more spiritual and mental support to the students in China. During the height of the epidemic, the embassies worked well in liaising with the student associations there. They need to build on this and organise monthly briefing calls – which could even have prayer sessions. The embassies should liaise with local Chinese NGOs and implement a programme of mental health support.

UWN: Most of the new COVID-19 cases in China now are imported from abroad. Is this causing problems for African and foreign students?

Sekidde: There are a few reports of foreigners being denied access to buildings and services. This is illegal and African governments should support the Chinese authorities in dealing with this. In fact, the embassies need to step up and highlight how African students and other Africans remained in China during the worst of the crisis there and even volunteered to support the Chinese government’s response.

UWN: When China closed down universities because of COVID-19, a lot of academic time was lost. Will African students graduate on time?

Sekidde: Embassies have to work hand in hand with the education authorities to ensure African students graduate on time. There was a delay in the resumption of classes after the Chinese New Year in late February and then most schools switched to online classes. However, many of the courses Africans take require practicums and internships. For those in their final year and due to graduate this year, some of these requirements should either be shortened or waived completely. It will be an unnecessary financial and emotional burden for final-year students to remain in their programmes beyond the expected graduation dates.

UWN: What is your advice for African parents with children studying in China right now?

Sekidde: The safest and most pragmatic option for African students in China is to remain where they are now. First of all, China has “flattened the curve” and the COVID-19 epidemic is waning there, while other countries, including African ones, are seeing a rise in cases. The measures taken by the Chinese government, though seemingly draconian at the time, seem to be working. China is probably the safest place to be.

Secondly, logistically it is very hard for anyone to leave China at the moment. The government has limited the number of flights coming in and out. And many other countries have banned flights into their airports. So African students in China have to stay put.

UWN: Do you think China will continue to be a top destination for African students after the COVID-19 epidemic?

Sekidde: Yes, China will continue to be a top destination for African students looking to study abroad. The China-Africa partnership in fighting COVID-19 has one again demonstrated the solidarity between China and Africa. Student numbers in China will likely stay the same, if not increase.