The outbreak of COVID-19 has sent many students, as well as the whole population, into a long period of uncertainty. Unfortunately, many of the students doing their year abroad had to finish their year early, in fear of contracting the virus or being trapped in the country, as flights were being cancelled and borders were being shut. Even though at the time I was in Belarus, which wasn’t as hard hit by the outbreak compared to Italy, France and Spain, I still decided to fly back for a number of reasons.
My time in Belarus
Firstly, while I was staying in Belarus between January and April, I was staying with a host family. And as the news predicted the outbreak was worsening, my family at home in the UK were worrying about borders closing and me not being able to come back. Of course, I was concerned about the health of my host family and of my own, and as I was out more, going to work, going to university and meeting friends, I had a higher chance of getting it and giving it to them.
The situation got worse when I was told by the Dean of the Faculty of International Relations at BSU, the faculty where I was studying, that there had been 10 recorded cases in my faculty alone. So, after that point, I didn’t attend university for a few days, and then news struck that the faculty was put in quarantine for 2 weeks.
Secondly, with Belarus being a relatively authoritarian country, we were skeptical whether the number of official cases was the true number or whether it was a lot more. At the time of this writing, Belarus only had 152 confirmed cases with 0 recorded deaths. President Lukashenko’s stance on coronavirus, in my opinion, was worryingly relaxed.
While every country around Belarus shut their borders, Belarus is still welcoming in people from all over the world with limited restrictions. There are no precautions; shops, pubs, restaurants and cafes are still open. Belarus’s Premier League even continues to play despite the outbreak. And after the initial 2-week quarantine for the faculties affected by coronavirus, the university is resuming the lectures. So, who knows realistically, how many people out there are infected. Before I made the decision to leave Belarus, the cases had only reached "36". Now, 1 month after leaving it has reached 3,281, but it could be a whole lot more.
As my mum is from Belarus, she knows the healthcare in the UK is better than in Belarus, and was suggesting for me to come home if anything were to happen to me. I also received advice from the British Embassy to return home while I still could. The University of Bath was really proactive and because of the rapidly changing situation they messaged me on a number of occasions with updates and when I was contacted by my Year Abroad Tutor advising to come home.
My decision to fly home
I was hoping to hold out for just 2 weeks, as I was scheduled to leave Minsk and fly to Moscow on April 3rd. But, after the news that Russia closed its border to Belarus, that was my plan up in the air, so I made immediate arrangements to leave for the protection of my host family and myself. I decided to fly back to the UK on March 18th. I said goodbye to my uni friends and my work colleagues as I packed up with one day’s notice. Lucky I did too, because if I had made the decision to fly to Moscow, I would have been in lockdown there too. So, better to be in lockdown with family than by myself!
What have I accomplished?
Because I am only doing one language for my course, I am lucky enough to have completed my required time abroad, unlike some of my other coursemates, who spent their first semester in one country, whether it be Italy, France or Spain, and the second semester in Russia. But the second semester’s been called short due to this crisis.
Looking back at my year abroad, I am proud of what I managed to accomplish in the time I had. In June, I was in Azerbaijan for 2 weeks where I attended a summer school at ADA University, and where Russian is widely spoken. Over the summer, between July and August, I also spent 3 weeks in Magnitogorsk working at a summer camp.
Then between September and December I spent 3 months teaching English and studying Russian in Magnitogorsk and I spent 2 months in Belarus doing the same. I was meant to go to Moscow between April and June and then I would’ve gone home, but unfortunately, life is unpredictable. However, although my time was cut short, I did loads of travelling, met loads of interesting people and made lots of friends and memories that I will never forget.
What can we do at home?
So, now that I’ve been at home for 2 weeks, what is it that us language students can do to keep up our practice at home, as to not forget our language skills? Luckily, I have my grandma and my mum to talk to everyday, as they both speak Russian, so it’s like I haven’t even left Belarus. But you can keep practicing by regularly watching TV or films in your language, text or call some friends you made while you were abroad to keep up your speaking, do exercises from your book and in general just revise!
And don’t forget that some of you will have a 5,000 year abroad essay to write, so now you have plenty of free time to write it! If we don’t get to go back on our year abroad, and we only start university in October, we have to try our best not to forget anything in the next 6 months.
But don’t feel down. Keep your hopes up! Perhaps, if the situation gets better, we can return to our year abroad in the summer! It’s not the last time you’ll go to Italy or France or Spain. It’s certainly not the last time I’ll be in Belarus or Russia. But for now, stay at home and stay safe! You now have plenty of time to write your year abroad essays and to practice your language in other ways, just get inventive!
Good luck! And see you next year!