coronavirus Features Travel

An unusual exchange experience: Covid-19 in australia

Ilaria Olini narrates her unexpected student exchange in Australia.

I landed in Adelaide on the 19th of February 2020, jetlagged but really looking forward to my next six months there as an exchange student. After all, everyone had told me that this experience was going to be unforgettable. As distant as it seems, it was a time when Coronavirus was still perceived as a far-off threat, given the relatively low number of global cases – apart from its outbreak in China. It is enough to think that in Italy, where I also happen to be from, the first outbreak was detected on the 20th, just a day after my arrival in Australia. No one was speaking about a pandemic yet.

A few days later, I moved into my accommodation at Flinders University and soon met the other international students, excited just as much as I was to be in this awesome, far-away country with a temperature of 28 degrees in February! We had orientation activities, city tours, we went to the beach and even got a chance to experience the Fringe – yes, Adelaide’s art festival is second only to Edinburgh’s.

It was already March, and in the meantime, my friends and family in Italy had just gone into what would have been one of the world’s longest nationwide lockdowns. From then onwards, there was a chain of events that were hard to keep track of, as the threat of COVID-19 became much more tangible. The virus seemed to spread at the speed of light, with the number of worldwide casualties growing exponentially day by day. Back in Australia, I started going to class, and I still recall people giving me an alarmed look when I said where I was from, seeing as it was where the epicentre of the pandemic had shifted.

In mid-March, Italy’s death toll overtook China’s. Trump declared a national emergency; France and Spain imposed lockdowns, eventually followed by the UK. Australia also announced a nationwide shutdown (a softer version of a lockdown, so to speak) on the 22nd of March. This involved the closure of state boarders and, for what concerned us students, the end of learning face-to-face. By then, the topic of Coronavirus had become a constant presence in our lives, inevitably slipping into every conversation and being mentioned at every class we attended. I eventually stopped checking the news. Partly because looking at the hundreds of daily deaths in my home country and feeling bad about it was not very constructive, but also because I would constantly be updated by the other international students, who were starting to grow worried for the situation in their countries. It was an odd feeling, to be concerned about the same thing that was affecting every one of us at home even though we came from different parts of the globe. I’m used to having conversations with international friends, but I have never experienced such a sense of unanimity and of mutual understanding, because we were all in the same boat.

Credit: Together For Wildlife

Our main concern was how badly it was going to hit ‘the land down under’, and for how long. All we knew were the terrible news from overseas, the emergence of a number of cases in Australia, and the irrational, apocalyptic panic buying – which led to a toilet paper shortage for almost a month. By April, two-thirds of the exchange students had left, for fear of an Australian lockdown and of being unable to travel and return home. Because more often than not, people’s flights across the world were getting cancelled at the last minute. Nevertheless, a few of us wishful thinkers decided to stay. We were originally hoping to travel to New Zealand during the two-week Easter break, but in the month of April we ended up staying in our apartments, attending online classes and refining our cooking abilities, as most people were doing. That was Australia’s turning point.

In May, the number of global Coronavirus cases reached the 5 million mark; Brazil overtook Russia in reporting the second-highest number of infections worldwide, with India not far behind, and Poland delayed its presidential election. Contrarily, the number of daily cases in Australia had plummeted by this point. For what concerns the state I live in, South Australia has been doing incredibly well, with only two new cases in the month of May. Restrictions have been gradually eased, and we’re starting to go back to something close to normality. Pubs and gyms are now open, with bookings required and social distancing measures in place. But what matters is that progress has been made, that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. We’re now in June, and come July, the other exchange students and I will finally be travelling through this beautiful country. Australia seems to have avoided a catastrophe, thanks to its isolated geographic position, to its relatively sparse population density but also to its timely and efficient response. All in all, although my exchange experience was not what I expected, I’m grateful for happening to be in Australia during such an unparalleled time, which is bound to go down in history and drastically change the future.

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