The impact of COVID-19 will remain a source of significant risk to international travel for an undetermined amount of time. Even the most optimistic forecasts suggest that attenuation of disease impact may not occur until into the early summer months, and significant virus circulation and disease occurrence may continue worldwide for at least 12 to 18 months. Additionally, periodic hot spots in varying locations will likely erupt until either treatment or vaccination become widely available.
For international education programs, the risks associated with the COVID-19 pandemic can be considered on two related but distinct levels: the direct and the indirect. Each will have a real impact on educational activities abroad over the coming years.
The direct risks are those associated with contracting the infection and potentially transmitting it upon return -- the more obvious impact of remaining abroad or traveling while COVID-19 stays present in the global population. Indirect risks are those related to impacts on social, economic and even governance and political structures. The indirect risks are somewhat less obvious but will last for an unknown period, long after disease recession itself. These risks will affect various countries and regions differently -- and potentially in manners that are disproportionate to the direct impact of COVID-19 in terms of a given location’s number of cases and/or deaths.
The seasonal calendar may also determine the disease cycle. It is hoped that most countries in the Northern Hemisphere will reach a plateau by early summer and start a steady, if shallow, decline shortly thereafter. But if COVID-19 follows the patterns of seasonal influenza and traditional common cold coronaviruses in humans, it will become more significant in the ensuing winter months in the Southern Hemisphere and then re-emerge in the fall/winter again in various northern regions. Recovery certainly will be reached on inconsistent timelines across the world.
Additionally, it would be overly optimistic to assume that there will not be significant disease resurgence and secondary (or even tertiary) waves (which have occurred historically in some past pandemics) due to premature removal of social restrictions. So when thinking about how the pandemic will end, we must remember that national and regional experiences will not be uniform. And when we attempt to expand assumptions internationally, the uncertainty grows for several reasons. Even if a given location navigates the pandemic with fewer proportional case, the socioeconomic effects of the disease will differ in each environment, with the potential for impacts far beyond disease morbidity in lower-middle-income countries. That is an important point when we consider how international education is likely to emerge from this tragedy.
Considerations for International Educators
Many affected populations around the world are characterized by dense urban areas that rival or exceed the size of even the largest American cities. These sprawling centers often are combined with less access to affordable, sophisticated medical care for large segments of the population. In such settings, the peak of disease will overwhelm the available medical systems but may also result in a shorter duration of the outbreak -- leaving behind tenuous medical resources.
In more dispersed rural populations or settings where social distancing can be implemented effectively, we may see a disease cycle that is elongated relative to that endured by others prior to eventual decline. And with a longer timeline comes the potential for greater economic impacts and societal breakdowns.
At the same time, countries that previously expected, or hoped, to remain unaffected by COVID-19 are now seeing its footprint grow within their borders -- with the potential for plateau following our own epidemic timeline by some months. Parts of Africa, Latin America and South Asia appear to fall into this latter category, with caseloads that are only now growing. And there is very real concern for resurgence of the virus due to travel-related reintroduction in areas that previously had seen significant reduction in cases. Unfortunately, as in the United States, the global outcome of the pandemic is likely to be more severe than many foresaw, even with the advantage of accumulating knowledge about this coronavirus.
The disease inevitably will linger longer in some places than it will in others, due to: 1) less aggressive public health interventions and social controls, 2) the fact that a given society is less apt or able to enforce such controls when put in place, 3) timing for removal of social controls, 4) a fragile health system, 5) the inability to test, identify and control so-called super-spreaders 6) disease impacts on health-care workers or 7) other variables that are difficult to predict. What will happen in each location and on what timetable remains unknown. But concerns for international education over the next several months and even the next academic year are justified. In parts of the world, COVID-19 will remain a real risk for quite some time, even if seasonal weather changes slow disease growth and flatten its trajectory.
International educators and campus leaders should consider the following environmental questions when planning to resume programming abroad:
- Have no new locally transmitted cases of COVID-19 occurred in a location for a period well beyond two incubation periods (with each period being 10 to 14 days as a conservative estimate for safety), with a confidence that the country or region has emerged from the pandemic without likelihood for immediate resurgence?
- Have the Centers for Disease Control and U.S. Department of State downgraded posted travel notices and advisories for the destination to levels acceptable within institutional travel policies?
- Does the destination country still exhibit the medical resources and public resolve to address isolated cases of COVID-19 if they are identified?
- Are travel routes to and from the destination similarly free of the disease in case there are unforeseen delays or medical needs while in transit? Are there restrictions for returning travelers, such as lengthy quarantine, that make short-term international study abroad impractical?
- Are temporary changes to visa controls and nonresident entry restrictions resolved in a manner that will allow students and other travelers to participate without undue challenges?
A Context of Societal Impacts
When educators consider the risk calculus for once again sponsoring students abroad, it is not just disease presence that will frame decisions in the coming months. They must also carefully weigh the contextual impact of the entire tragedy. These considerations can be categorized as indirect risks.
Indirect risk primarily results from the societal impacts of the pandemic -- not only due to the disease itself but also various controls and restrictions that governments worldwide have put in place to combat and mitigate it, as well as the consequent economic impacts on the society. These measures are likely to remain for many weeks in some form following even the start of disease regression. The United Kingdom’s deputy chief medical officer, for instance, has projected that social distancing measures will be sustained for about six months after the disease incidence begins to decline.
Given concerns for a potential so-called second wave, it’s almost a foregone conclusion that public restrictions will remain at least partially in place for quite some time, to include travel and border controls. Such measures, and their nonlinear effects, already have reshaped societies in ways that only a few weeks ago would have seemed unthinkable. The real impacts may not be understood completely for a long time to come.
When we consider these effects, we must recognize that parts of the world and various global industries (including the travel/airline sector) may not recover with their pre-pandemic structures and resources intact. That reality will create challenges for international educators as they look to re-establish a presence abroad.
In the latter part of 2019, many governments around the world already were in tenuous circumstances due to suffering economies or growth patterns that failed large segments of their populations. Sustained episodes of civil resistance were seen in several locations in the last year, some of which devolved into violence and even threatened to overthrow the status quo regime. The impact of the pandemic on those countries and the related impact of a declining world economy may be even more devastating, creating greater dissatisfaction with potential for renewed unrest.
The following societal issues should be considered within the institution’s risk tolerance prior to returning abroad:
- Are the societal structures and medical resources sufficiently capable of safely supporting travelers, even in the event of an unforeseen disaster or crisis?
- Will there be renewed civil disorder in some destinations in the throes of a disturbed economy?
- Will some locations see increased crime rates as economic malaise deepens social desperation?
- Will internal adversaries, rival militias and terrorist groups see opportunity in the pandemic’s impact and intensify violent actions in locales where they previously were less active? Will students meet resentment or even antagonism and harassment as part of a general distrust for outsiders in the wake of what is seen as an imported disease in many parts of the world?
Many industries will have a difficult time recovering from labor losses and resultant supply-chain interruption, depleting business capacity or even forcing companies to close divisions or flee entire markets, with resultant changes in demand for goods and services. Meanwhile, amid ballooning unemployment, skilled and unskilled workers alike may be forced to seek other jobs and will not be replaced quickly. Such effects will combine to exacerbate economic impacts, slow local recovery greatly and potentially impact local/national/regional safety and stability. Places that tentatively were thought to be emerging from recent social upheaval may not be prudent destinations for renewed student programming for quite some time.
These questions will help international educators and campus leaders think about potential infrastructure issues when planning to return to a given location:
- Will skilled and unskilled labor be restored to the workplace in sufficient numbers to support local infrastructure?
- Are basic goods and services available at levels that support students’ needs and expectations?
- Will students working as interns encounter labor tensions and even unrest amid high unemployment within the local community?
- Has the host government taken steps to ensure healthful use of local and regional public transportation systems (buses, subways, trains) to help prevent disease re-emergence?
The Efficacy of Partners and Hosts Abroad
Host agencies and institutions, third-party programmers, and local collaborators all may be unable to address program planning with the same attention as before COVID-19. Significant financial losses may keep some overseas providers from re-establishing precrisis academic portfolios at some destinations, if they are able to reopen their doors at all. One study abroad industry leader eliminated several hundred jobs only a few weeks after the virus emerged as a truly global pandemic, an action that will make its own recovery a long and highly uncertain process. This may be the norm rather than the exception.
Additionally, the burden assumed by public agencies and health systems in foreign countries will have exhausted staff at all levels of expertise, sapped medical supplies and created a public health environment that generally indicates a long path to recovery -- measured in months even at the most hopeful outlook. These conditions may persist in some locations, preventing travelers’ access to strong support and care while abroad for years. If due diligence means confidence in the ability to provide for travelers’ needs, then in some places it may not be possible to resume that confidence for some time. This may be true even in favored destinations where institutions have previously sent large numbers of students for very successful international experiences.
The following questions may help educators consider the restoration of critical partnerships abroad:
- Will previous programming partners and institutions abroad remain viable at levels that resume confidence in them, academically and otherwise?
- Do partners have viable plans for transition to distance learning if the need again emerges?
- Will partners be able to isolate exposed students comfortably and provide support for quarantine needs in the event of disease re-emergence?
- Will emergency response, police presence, public health systems and other public agencies recover to a degree that will meet the duty of care obligation for students abroad?
Preparing for the Post-Pandemic World
As campuses look toward the summer and fall 2020 terms, they must do so with the stark realization that much will remain unknown until very late in the planning process. At some point, monies will be committed irretrievably if the most optimistic hopes are not realized, potentially compounding the financial burden of the lost spring and summer 2020 semesters. Preparing for post-pandemic study abroad will challenge each institution’s risk tolerance until the future is known with greater clarity. Some common study abroad environments may no longer be viable locations for responsible programming. In other locations, previous hosts and partners may lack the same vibrant academic curriculum if they re-emerge at all, making it necessary to reassess programs completely with a deliberate vetting process.
An institution may have to return to programming with a rebalanced portfolio for some time, allowing the field to recover and indicate its own health. In the near term, programs should be reconstituted only in locations where necessary conditions truly are restored. Returning to the international domain with a phased strategy may allow universities to do so with more focused oversight, especially if faced with unwelcome surprises that unravel pivotal risk assumptions.
Ultimately, international educators must recognize that the study abroad environment has been recast in complex ways that will take time to understand and address with necessary confidence. Peer institutions with similar international profiles abroad can provide a shared baseline to help inform strategies, but each college or university will have to reach its own decisions within a deliberate process. The immense opportunities of education abroad remain, but the world in which we seek those opportunities has changed.