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Profiling students in limbo due to COVID-19 global outbreak

The global COVID-19 outbreak is a concern shared by many people around the world. According to media reports, the Chinese government has responded by locking down Wuhan city in Hubei province, where the virus was first detected in January, and urging citizens to self-quarantine.

Some countries like the United States, Mauritius and Indonesia have evacuated their citizens out of China and cancelled flights, while Prime Minister Hun Sen last month noted the Kingdom’s relationship with China is business as usual.

According to the Associations of Cambodian Students in China, there are approximately 2,400 Cambodian students in China, with more supposed to join. Khmer Times’ Marie Lamy spoke to students who had travel plans cancelled or postponed because of COVID-19.

A photo displays a store in Nanjing fully stocked with snacks and beverages. Supplied

Phen Mab says he is among 66 students who returned to the Kingdom from China in January for a holiday and was supposed to go back to Nanjing the following month.

Mr Mab says while in Siem Reap, teachers and his university’s admissions department began prohibiting students from travelling to China because of COVID-19.

According to the CPU China Pharmaceutical University, an international student was warned by the university and placed under quarantine after allegedly returning to China without consent. The university said the student allegedly jumped a gate and entered his dorm.

While some Cambodian students managed to return home before COVID-19 cases rose, others did not receive a chance to return home.

Chhay Chanserey, a student at the Pharmaceutical University in Nanjing, says he has no plans to return to Phnom Penh during an upcoming winter break.

“Winter vacation days are short, I did not think returning was worth it,” Mr Chanserey says, regretting not booking a return ticket home in January.

He says staying within the four walls for his dorm for long periods is a struggle, but notes that doing so is the safest choice.

“We attend [online] classes as scheduled using applications on phones and laptops,” Mr Chanserey says. “The university requests students to update our online health records daily before 5pm.”

He says he cooks most meals as it is safer than eating outside.

“Before [the outbreak], I ate breakfast, lunch and dinner at the campus’ canteen, but now I regularly cook,” Mr Chanserey says. “The supermarket on campus opens three days a week from 1pm to 4pm. Stalls sell eggs and vegetables, but a few types of meat.”

He says his mother is worried about safety in China, adding she has asked him to return home. However, Mr Chanserey says he is apprehensive about using public transportation at the moment and travelling to the closest airport would take one and a half hours via metro.

“Going outside is taking a risk – I do not want to take that risk because I do not know who is sick,” he says. “I would rather stay in my dormitory and wait until things go back to normal.”

In Wuhan, Pen Barang explains the number of people who are getting infected by COVID-19 is decreasing, which makes living in China better now, despite the fact the city is still under lockdown.

“We are not allowed to go outside, but the situation is improving. Our university controls all movement, and it provides all students with three meals a day,” Mr Barang says.

COVID-19 has disrupted many events around the world. Concerts, seminars, marathons and conferences have been indefinitely postponed.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, general director of the World Health Organization, said: “COVID-19 can be characterised as a pandemic.”

According to the WHO, there have been 153,517 cases, with most of them in China.

Mr Hun Sen in February said he would visit Wuhan to visit Cambodian students, but the Chinese government advised against it.

Meals are delivered three times per day. Many university students have resorted to attending classes online. Supplied

Instead, he visited China and met President Xi Jinping in Beijing.

The Education Ministry subsequently handed $500 to 23 students in Wuhan, which did not sit well with other students in China who claimed they were facing a more difficult situation.

Mr Hun Sen last week during a graduation ceremony said: “Do not fear COVID-19, have the courage to combat it. Please transform fear into an opportunity to strengthen hygiene practices.”

The ACSC is currently helping by distributing supplies donated by companies to students stranded in China.

“Masks, hand sanitisers and food supplies were sent to students in need,” ACSC president Nop Veasna said. “We are always in touch with companies who can help. We are looking for businesses in China or Cambodia who are able to donate anything that can be useful.”

In a recent interview with Khmer Times, Chinese Ambassador Wang Wentian said the Chinese embassy in Phnom Penh is working with local health departments to ensure the safety of Chinese nationals in the Kingdom. He said the embassy will update Chinese nationals in Cambodia on the latest COVID-19 information.

Meanwhile in Phnom Penh, Som Sonya waits patiently for her opportunity to study in China.

Ms Sonya says she felt excited when her university in Phnom Penh announced in December she would be going to China to study in the Beijing Foreign Language University as part of a foreign exchange programme.

She was eager to visit a new country and improve her Mandarin. She recalls seizing the opportunity to study abroad without hesitation.

She says her parents were anxious about letting her leave for China, but Ms Sonya’s family were relieved after learning she had not yet bought flight tickets.

When news about the virus outbreak in Wuhan reached the Kingdom in January, the visit was postponed.

“The programme was scheduled to start in February, but the [Chinese] embassy informed me that the programme has been postponed indefinitely,” Ms Sonya says, noting she is now at home waiting for approval from the Chinese embassy.

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COVID-19, COVID-19 in Cambodia, students