“The pandemic revealed how precarious many students live” – Edinburgh and beyond

When governments urged people to stay home, it suddenly became visible that administrative categories of such spaces are not holding up with the complex realities of the world – people who just simply have no home to return to. Or those unable to go for various reasons. Blessy, a PhD student from India living in Edinburgh, is narrating the story of a complicated division between ‘home’ and ‘abroad’, between inside and outside developments of the pandemic.

The first months: Divisions unfolding

I was actively told not to return to India. Rationally speaking, I also thought it was not a good idea. In the beginning, no one had any idea about the virus and I did not want to unnecessarily put any risk on my mother by coming back. Plus, she is a very independent person, we talk a few times a day, but actually she does not need much to entertain her. I get a stipend from the Commonwealth Scholarship Commission – they were also very confused about the situation in the beginning. As they are responsible for paying our flight tickets back to our home countries, they were not sure whether they should encourage us to go back at this particular moment. Eventually they allowed us to leave, but their decision came after India had already closed its border so that even people who wanted to were unable to travel. That seemed a little irresponsible to me because it put an immense pressure on many people, especially married couples or students with senior parents. Anxiety levels were incredibly high, some said, If I have to die, I want to die with them, I don’t want to be left to my own devices in a foreign country and my body could not be returned to my home. It was a very frightening situation for all of us. Even if I did not intend to leave, I started to get confused myself from these statements. As the borders closed, we all had to make a difficult decision. What if something happened to our families at home? My mother lives alone, so if there was any issue she would not have anyone around her. Plus, she is someone who would not necessarily ask for help that easily. Nonetheless, overall I felt that I would have made the situation worse if I had come back. In Delhi housing communities are very close to each other and I was worried about the stigma when everyone would eventually find out that I had returned. Especially because we had just bought a house in Central Delhi. There would have been a lot of rumours and a lot of ostracization, not only for me but also for my mother. Recently community transmission in Delhi has increased significantly. Everyone knows someone very dear who contracted it. I am ordering most things for my mother online so that she does not need to step out of the house. Prices for hospital treatment in Delhi have soared, it has become very expensive to get access to COVID-19 related health facilities.

When the borders closed, this left may other Indian students at the brink of starvation, appealing to the Indian Embassy to arrange facilities to let them return home. Their statements were very emotional with people sharing how scared they were about not knowing what to eat, living under the fear of being thrown out of their houses. Even if there were rent laws put in place to prevent such situations, not all landlords were abiding to these rules and some people in fact had to leave their apartments. A majority of Indian students who comes to study in the UK does not have scholarships or other financial support. They mostly rely on their parents taking a loan for one part of the tuition fees and then do part-time work to cover for the cost of the other half. But surely all these jobs in the services sector seized to exist in the crisis and they had absolutely no savings to fall back to. Some of these students I met told me how much they have to work to cover for all these expenses. They will work during the night for seven or eight hours, then go to classes in the morning, then work again – a lot of hard work and they are all very young. So they cannot save much, whatever is left you send back to your family. Under such conditions there is no time for cooking, or any time to learn any life skills so that when the crisis hit they were completely left without knowing what to do. Thankfully there were some NRIs (Non Resident Indians) who organised some food support and delivered cooked meals to these students, took care of their rent. In the end, the Indian Embassy intervened and these students were among the first ones to leave via the government’s Vande Bharat evacuation flights. This moment of the pandemic revealed the fragility and precarity of the existence of many students who are to a large extent also part of the informal sector. Even though they are probably part of the lower middle class, they may be rich enough to pay the tuition fees somehow but are often too poor to maintain a monthly source of income.

Lockdown routines and realities in the UK

Edinburgh was probably one of the few cities in the country where people generally followed the rules. We had become a ghost town at some point. During April and May there were hardly any people on the streets. However, during the time of the lockdown there was a lot of distrust in the government and their significant restrictions on the freedom of movement. Even when cases started rising in the UK people were still going out in parks and spent a lot of time outside before the lockdown was imposed. It seemed to me almost as an act of rebellion.

Ironically, now that the lockdown is partially lifted, people are extra careful. Even though public spaces like libraries could potentially open up, they are reluctant to do so due to the potential risks. It is very interesting to see how reverse psychology works here. People seem to think to themselves that I will stay inside but I won’t need you to tell me to stay inside. Last Thursday (11.06.2020) was the day of the official reopening of shops. Some of the essential stores like supermarkets, pharmacies, and even Primark has opened, but I need stationary goods but these are not available yet. Scotland has more autonomy than the rest of the UK so they are probably a little more independent in their decision-making. Yet, they continue saying that they would do things differently only to follow exactly the UK governments’ decisions. Overall I don’t think they have departed from these decisions a lot.

However, COVID-19 lead to more racist attacks. I observed that many of the Asian community members were wearing masks, as a precaution for themselves and others. But the white population was not accustomed to wearing them, or see people with masks. They must have speculated that whoever is wearing a mask would be sick, rather than understanding that wearing masks is in fact making it safer for everyone. My friends felt extremely nervous about wearing masks due to the growing racial tensions – in Birmingham there were even physical attacks. It was a bit weird, I too felt awkward wearing a mask, even up to the point where I went to the supermarket in the middle of the pandemic and I was the only person with a mask. This changed a little when the WHO recommended the use of masks, but there was never a rule making them mandatory. After the WHO statement I do now see white people starting to wear it – which is a surprise, because from April to May they were not doing that. Imagine very old fragile senior citizens stepping out, barely able to walk, without any protection – They were the most vulnerable and seeing them out in the supermarket made me very nervous. There were a lot of casualties, especially in old age homes. Probably it was also due to the high number of cases that people started to realise that they should be more protective. Edinburgh did not see as high numbers as Dundee or Glasgow, but it was high enough to scare people.

There are a lot of homeless people in Edinburgh. Where I live, there is an area of three large supermarkets next to each other, and usually you would find some of them there. However, in the middle of the pandemic, around April and May, they were all absent. Only at the beginning of June they came back. Even though there were food banks arranged and there were procedures to sanitise everything to maintain accessibility to the most basic relief facilities, these were probably the people who have suffered the most. Charity shops are a very integral part of the economy here. With them being closed and facing huge financial losses, this must have been catastrophical. We heard that homeless people were not allowed to stay on the streets anymore due to the potential of the spreading of the virus. They were forced to stay in shelters. But shelters themselves can be very abusive places, especially for women, many of them would choose to stay outside because they would find that much safer. I don’t see any way this could have been easy. Even if you needed basic necessities, you were unable to find them. Even though food was probably not an issue, many other things were not so accessible. Especially for women if you need pads and other sanitary products. What happened to their pets when all the shops are closed? I am really worried about that.

At least Scotland did a little better than the UK because people are living a little more spread out. But in many parts of the country there were cold and open calculations that compared the amount of economic losses with the cost of protecting human lives. It seemed for a while that everyone was just looking after themselves. Even if you wanted to help someone, you might have ended up hurting people. So even volunteer work was very risky at that point.

Learning and living with the Virus

Classes are now mostly conducted online. Most of the exams are open book exams, but that does not mean they are not rigorous. This seems to be working fine, and whenever technical difficulties are occuring, there are mechanisms put in place to fix them. For example, my friend did not have a laptop, but the administration was quick in organising one for her. The Edinburgh University had also some sort of emergency fund, even if it was only a little. Many students have been encouraged to leave the hostels without having to pay any extra sum in order to prevent the spread of the virus in those facilities. Many have followed that call. We are a big hostel with 1000 people living there, but about 60 per cent was emptied now. 22 people share a kitchen here. In my flat, 12 people left – these were mostly people who had family nearby or who were able to get flight tickets very early so that they could leave. Whoever stayed back was not able to leave. So we who did not leave relied on each other. I will always be really grateful for my friends who were there for me. It was a very exceptional and difficult time – surely we also had our arguments. But we were able to negotiate and comfort each other. I never felt too lonely, it made me fell happy and safe. Because no one was allowed outside or inside, we were very lucky to live together.  

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