When Covid lock-outs damage education

A group of Thai students meet Dusit Manapan, deputy permanent secretary for foreign affairs, and officials from the Department of East Asian Affairs on Sept 10, in a bid to return to study in China. (Foreign Ministry photo)

Thousands of Thai students have urged both the Thai and the Chinese governments to help them return to class, two years after China shut the border against the Covid-19 pandemic.

Many are concerned about the acceptance of their degree, especially science and medical students who need to perform laboratory or clinical work.

They have created the #TakeThaikidsbacktoChina movement via Twitter and also submitted petitions to the Chinese Embassy, the government and state authorities calling for help.

Rhonnakorn Rojjanakatanyoo, a 30-year-old cosmetic surgery student at Dalian Medical University and the movement’s founder, said he had dropped his class for 18 months as it was impossible to study online when his year needed to gain internship experience at a hospital.

“It is not only medical students. Other students doing science majors such as astronautical engineering and high-speed railway technology students, and specialised master and doctoral students also cannot have class as they require labs to study but there are no such labs in Thailand,” he added.

On March 26 last year, the Chinese government announced it would stop issuing all foreign visas, except for cabin crew, as a pandemic control measure.

The border is still closed. Students do not know when they can return to further their studies in China.

Mr Rhonnakorn started the movement in July 2020. He submitted a petition to all Thai embassies in China, the Chinese embassy in Thailand, the Foreign Ministry, the National Assembly president, and even Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha to help get them back to class in China.

Later, Foreign Affairs Minister Don Pramudwinai met students to clarify the issues.

He asked the East Asia Department to help them. The Chinese embassy also invited them to talks and promise to negotiate with the Chinese government.

“Last time, we submitted the letter to the House Speaker Chuan Leekphai. He brought up this topic during a bilateral meeting on July 20. He asked the chairman of the NPC to consider allowing us back and they said they would consider the option,” he added.

He also said the group contacted the Disease Control Department about getting the Sinovac vaccine, which they received at the end of May.

“The reason we took the Chinese vaccines is that from March 15, 2021 they said they would facilitate the visa process for those who had the Chinese jabs.

“Although the visa service website does not include [the opportunity for] students to obtain them, we got the jab to prepare ourselves for when they let us in,” he said.

He said a document was signed by 1,670 students who said they wanted to go back to study and wanted the Chinese-made jabs.

“We are willing to do everything,” he said. “We are willing to do 14 days ASQ in Thailand and another 28 days ASQ in China to ensure we are virus-free. We are even willing to pay ourselves,” he added.

Siriyakorn Jullagulp, 20, a Chinese language, education and culture student from Huachiew University Xiamen, has been waiting to enter China since March 28 last year.

Although she joined online classes, she was worried about her thesis project before graduation as she needs to be closely mentored by teachers.

Salocha Techawanwanitchakorn, 23, is concerned about her future as well. She is a final-year Chinese medicine student from Tianjin Chinese Medicine University.

“I have been studying how to inject people and operate on patients via online platforms. My teacher felt pity for me. The final year is the only opportunity for students to gain experience through working at the hospital.

“I need to go back as soon as possible, or I will miss this opportunity,” she said.

She had been studying in China since senior high school, and hoped to work as a Chinese doctor, but the pandemic has upset her plans.

“I don’t think anyone would like to see a doctor who graduated via an online platform. I am worried that I will not be able to cure patients as I do not have an internship in a hospital. I feel so lost,” she said.

Fortunately, she is allowed to attend an online seminar over the internship. The school will allow her to be an intern when she returns to China.

Not all students are lucky like Salocha. Some universities have evicted foreign students from dormitories to welcome newcomers, she said.

“If we do not call on the rights that we deserve today, I do not think future students will get the rights they deserve either,” she said.

“No one wants a scholarship that they have to study online throughout their degree, right?”

As there still is an outbreak of Covid-19 in Fujian, China is still barring foreign students from re-entering the country, Yang Xin, Charge D’affaires of the Chinese Embassy in Thailand, said.

He was asked when Thai students will be allowed to return to study in China after they left the country when Covid-19 surfaced there.

He said that whenever China reopens for foreign students, Thai students will be the first group to be allowed in.

The charge d’affaires offered moral support to Thai students intending to return to study in China, saying he hopes they will get their wish soon.

More than 30,000 Thai students are enrolled in study programmes in China.

That makes them the second largest group of foreign students there, after South Korean students.

The Chinese government is focusing on the importance of protecting its people and expats in the country from the outbreak, he said.