Cuihua Chen, a senior, sits quietly at home as she completes a class assignment and emails it to her professor, who is 8,000 miles away. She can’t remember the last time she was able to leave her house in Guangzhou, China.
Though the exchange is not ideal, it is all Chen, who also goes by her American name, Tracy, can do to attempt to stay on track to graduate in May 2020.
Chen flew to China on Jan. 23 following her father’s death. She was supposed to return to the U.S. on Feb. 2, but both the Chinese and U.S. governments have restricted travel in response to the coronavirus outbreak. Chen’s flight home was canceled, leaving her unsure of when she could return and hopeful that she will still be able to graduate.
She said she is very worried about graduation, but all she can do is continue communicating with her professors.
Chen is one of many students dealing with the impacts of the COVID-19 outbreak. After the U.S. Department of State and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention raised the travel advisory level in Italy on Feb. 28, the UofA ordered 40 students to return home from their study abroad program in Rome.
“Your health and safety is our top concern,” an email from Rome Center officials read to participants on Feb. 28. “Please know that this decision was not made lightly or quickly and reflects our dedication to doing what is best for our students.”
The virus struck northern Italy first in mid-February, and Lizzy Lankford, a junior, who was participating in the program, said no one seemed too concerned at first because they were so far south.
“Our directors were constantly telling us, like, ‘Don’t worry, it’s not really that bad,’” Lankford said.
As of March 9, Italy has over 7,300 confirmed cases and 366 deaths, according to the World Health Organization.
Chen has had a similar experience to Lankford in China.
“I had been in China for nearly a month, and at first I didn’t think the disaster would be that bad,” Chen said.
In the beginning, she said she would simply put on a mask when she went outside. Within a week, however, the number of confirmed cases in China skyrocketed, and her family wouldn’t let her out of the house.
Guangzhou is a busy trading port home to about 15 million people. Located in southern China, it is roughly 600 miles from Wuhan, where health officials think the coronavirus outbreak originated. There have been 347 confirmed cases and one death in Guangzhou as of March 9, according to real-time reports from China.
For the past month, Chen has worked with professors to keep up with her coursework. For now, she said she is still on track to graduate in May, and her professors have been understanding of the situation.
Danjie Su, an assistant professor of Chinese and applied linguistics, said the UofA notified her about Chen’s situation and asked her to be understanding and flexible in terms of coursework. She was also told to notify her department chair if Chen returns.
“I think the university has been quite responsive,” Su said. “We need to protect not just Tracy, but also the whole class and the university students.”
Su said Chen has been successfully completing all of the coursework for her class, even videotaping a presentation and sending it in before the deadline.
Despite being 600 miles away from Wuhan, Chen said Guangzhou residents are living under strict restrictions.
They are not allowed to leave their homes without proving their “intention to go out,” Chen said, except for one person who may leave every two days for food. Volunteers travel from house to house to check people’s temperatures, while armed police check temperatures at the city’s entrance and exit points.
On Feb. 12, according to the South China Morning Post, Guangzhou authorities enacted a ban on dining in restaurants. Group gatherings have also been banned.
“I feel very depressed,” Chen said. “Because, in order to control the outbreak, the government asked us to reduce the number of outings and not to be able to get together.”
Chen and her mother recently moved from their house in Guangzhou to the countryside, because it is not as densely populated and the restrictions are less severe. Regardless, they are still not allowed to visit any relatives or friends, but Chen said having her mother with her is comforting.
“If I stay with my mother, I will be much better,” Chen said. “I will not often shed tears.”
The rules in Hubei province, the epicenter of the outbreak, are even stricter. Residents of Wuhan, Huanggang, Shiyan and Xiaogan are not allowed to leave their homes at all.
Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that cause illnesses ranging from the common cold to severe respiratory diseases, according to the WHO. The current virus, COVID-19, is a new strain health officials think originated in an animal and seafood market in Wuhan.
As of March 9, there are over 110,000 confirmed cases across 105 countries and territories, according to the WHO. There have been over 3,800 deaths – mostly elderly people and those with pre-existing medical conditions.
When Chen returns to the U.S., she will have to self-quarantine for two weeks. This is the longest incubation period for similar coronaviruses, according to the CDC. During this time, Chen must stay at home, monitor her health and follow up with the health department. Someone who has been released from quarantine is not considered at risk of spreading the disease to others.
Dr. Jennifer Dillaha, the Arkansas Department of Health’s medical director for immunizations and outbreak response, said the goal of the quarantine process is to allow communities more time to prepare for an outbreak. She said health officials believe quarantines are effective in minimizing the introduction of the virus into communities.
While Dillaha said the spread of the virus in Arkansas communities is likely, slowing the spread will allow health care officials to learn more about the illness and what treatments are effective, as well as finish developing a vaccine.
On day three of her quarantine, Lankford languished in bed at her family’s home in Houston. She’s already watched an entire season of “Gilmore Girls” on Netflix.
Lankford said she must stay at least 6 feet away from other people. She keeps a record of her temperature, which she checks twice a day, for the State health department.
She and the other students officials forced to return home are supposed to resume on-campus classes the week of March 16. Lankford said two of her classes have already been switched to online, and she’s not sure what will happen with the other three, because they were taught by Italian professors.
“Everyone’s trying to be as flexible as possible,” Lankford said. “But it’s hard because you’re just going day by day, not knowing what’s going to happen, and I don’t do well with that.”
Chen said she doesn't know when she will be able to return to the U.S., but as long as she is back to take a final exam for one of her classes, she will be able to graduate. For now, she said she is studying every day and staying in touch with her professors.
“I’m looking forward to going back one day,” Chen said.