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UWI Caribbean students feel trapped, abandoned in Ja

Published:Sunday | May 17, 2020 | 12:23 AMDavid Salmon - Contributor

A student walks towards the Main Library at The University of the West Indies, Mona, in this August 2018 Gleaner photo.
A student walks towards the Main Library at The University of the West Indies, Mona, in this August 2018 Gleaner photo.

Caribbean students still stuck at The University of the West Indies, Mona, are anxious to get home as the coronavirus pandemic continues to wreak havoc across the globe. They also fear that their extended stay on campus could result in them having to fork out more payment for dorm rooms, putting further pressure on their dwindling financial resources.

Two students from St Vincent and the Grenadines, whose identities The Sunday Gleaner is protecting out of a general fear among Vincentians that they could lose scholarships for speaking out, have said that they feel let down by their government in how it is communicating with them and how plans for their return home are being handled.

David Bentley* numbers among roughly 200 students believed to have remained on campus since the suspension of physical classes in March as Jamaica recorded its first coronavirus case.

“COVID-19 has created a spirit of anxiety in me,” he told The Sunday Gleaner last week. “Being locked in now because you have to has produced the psychological feeling that you are trapped.”

Now one of the last occupants of his dorm as Jamaican students were given notice to vacate several halls within hours of news that classes would be suspended, Bentley said the uncertainty surrounding transportation arrangements have added to his anxiety.

Jamaica and several other Caribbean countries have closed their borders to incoming passenger traffic as part of efforts to contain the deadly pandemic. However, special arrangements have been made by some governments to bring home stranded citizens to mixed reaction.

“Initially, contact was not made to us by the government,” the Vincentian said. “It was after a while when people realised things were getting serious … that we reached out to the honorary consul as to what could be done, but it wasn’t until late that the government got truly involved.”

In a letter earlier this month, St Vincent and the Grenadines Honorary Consul to Jamaica, June Barbour, told the stranded students wanting to return home amid the coronavirus that they would each have to pay more than US$1,330 for a return charter flight, warning that the airfare could increase if there are fewer than 56 students making the journey.

Bentley and other students found the price quoted by the Antiguan-based regional airline, LIAT, of which St Vincent and the Grenadines is a shareholder, to be exorbitant, given the limited resources they had. This has left some parents to be desperately trying to organise their own transportation home. However, there is no official word on departure dates due to ongoing dialogue in regard to the reopening of different countries’ borders.

“I think that the government did not do enough ... in terms of early communication,” Bentley said. “If we were communicated with, …. then we would have understood. [Initially,] we listened to the prime minister’s delivery of the country’s stimulus package; nothing was mentioned about us. We had awaited further correspondence from the National Student Loan Company, and nothing was said. Only one email came that told us to continue washing our hands.”


Deborah Wisdom*, another Vincentian student, echoed this frustration.

“Personally, I am not in agreement with the plans that have been made to fly us home. The time period in which they would like to send the flight is not the best for me, neither was the cost. There has also been a lot of tug of war regarding what airline we would be taking,” she said. “Flights should be scheduled for next Tuesday and Thursday, but the flights would only leave if enough persons are able to go.”

The students said they have been adopting different strategies to ease their anxiety.

For Bentley, writing journal entries, listening to music, exercising and watching plays have helped him through the often-lonely experience. On the other hand, Wisdom has found that being involved in her studies takes her mind off the pandemic.

Other Caribbean nationals have also expressed worry even as they rally together to keep their spirits up during the pandemic.

Lisa, a St Lucian student, has expressed that she has grown closer with her fellow colleagues on campus.

“We have tried to band together during this time by engaging in different activities such as exercising, cooking and studying together. I also keep frequent contact with my family and friends who are back home …. Their support definitely keeps me going,” she told The Sunday Gleaner.

She is hoping that she will be able to return home sooner rather than later as news of the pandemic can be unnerving.

“I think what unsettles me most is the media. There are so many stories surrounding this virus that it is very easy to fall prey to those that incite fear and panic, which I, too, have felt from time to time ….

“My biggest fear about this crisis is the fact that it does not discriminate,” Lisa added, although she is happy that the St Lucian government has made contact with her.

Conversely, Jennifer, a Barbadian student, has not found solace with these sentiments.

“My fear is that the date for the borders to reopen keeps being pushed back, which prevents me from returning home,” she lamented. “My challenge with remaining on campus is the uncertainty of whether or not the university will charge me for my extended stay. There has been talk about us being charged, but no one can either confirm or deny.”

*Names changed.