*Names have been changed to allow for anonymity.
Life in Toronto came to a grinding halt this March when the World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus to be a pandemic. A general sense of fear enveloped the Greater Toronto Area as businesses and schools closed their doors for an indefinite period. Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, the city became a sea of masks, hand sanitizer pumps, and panic at the slight sniffle, sneeze, or cough. While the number of infected individuals in Canada remained comparatively low, we witnessed global tragedies coming as snippets from distant acquaintances, foreign news outlets, and social media platforms, such as Twitter and Instagram.
Articles and infographics began to circulate on how to protect oneself from catching this novel virus. Yet, the hard truth of what contracting the virus was like remained obscured and stigmatized. As many international students found themselves away from home, grappling with financial instability and lacking support from family and friends, the fear associated with a Covid-19 diagnosis became paralyzing, and often times, alienating. Unlike the many Canadians unaffected by the virus, certain UTM students found themselves face-to-face with a potentially deadly infection, and the many hardships it presented.
Natalie*, a fourth-year international UTM student in the Communication, Culture, Information and Technology (CCIT) program, contracted Covid-19 in early August. “I have to pay out-of-pocket for health care [as an international student], so I was scared that my condition would worsen and I would need an ambulance, hospital bed, or anything like that,” Natalie said as she wrung her hands over the Zoom call. “Even if my parents were to send me money, it still wouldn’t be an immediate relief.”
Although many international students have access to health care through the University Health Insurance Plan (UHIP), it is not enough coverage for many. As a result, a majority of international students must rely on their parents’ or guardians’ private insurance, which may not be of use in Canada.
Another fourth-year CCIT student, Sarah, shared the struggles of living alone as an international student. “It was hard being by myself during Covid-19. Being an international student, you have no one to take care of you,” said Sarah. “Spending basically two weeks locked in your room can take a toll on a lot of things, such as your mental health and your financial stability. It makes you question a lot of things, as dramatic as that may sound.”
“Personally, I was terrified,” said Alex, a fourth-year UTM student studying sociology and criminology. She had also contracted Covid-19. “My mental health deteriorated as my symptoms got worse. I had a cough, fever, and was so fatigued that I could barely get out of bed.” While suffering from her symptoms, Alex, luckily, had the least of it. Many individuals with Covid-19 experience more serious symptoms including chest pains, difficulty breathing, loss of speech and movement, as well as loss of taste or smell.
“Luckily, I was asymptomatic,” Natalie stated. “I definitely lost my sense of smell, but that wasn’t anything some spicy food couldn’t help fix after a few days.”
For these international students, and many others, the only thing worse than Covid-19 is the stigma that comes with contracting it. Called to attention by the social precautions put in place, a Covid-19 diagnosis can be seen as a sign of irresponsibility or lack of preparation.
However, the truth is that it only takes one unlucky encounter to contract the virus. When asked about how her housemates reacted and dealt with her having the novel coronavirus, Sarah replied that they were understanding. “I had to let people [who I had been in contact with] know that I was sick, but thankfully no one treated me any different.”
Unfortunately, others, including Alex, were faced with different reactions. “When I told my place of work that I had the virus, they were really hesitant about letting me come back, even after the two weeks of quarantine and a full recovery,” said Alex. “It also made communicating and socializing with others afterwards a difficult task.” Although only Natalie and Alex had a place of employment, all three students reported wearing masks and gloves to, from, and at public places, including grocery stores, work, and public transportation. They also abstain from attending large social gatherings.
While there are no confirmed or known cures for the novel coronavirus, these students did find other methods of alleviating some of the symptoms, as well as new techniques to manage their mental and emotional health during quarantine. “I definitely got better at scheduling and managing my time,” said Natalie. “Spending all that time in my room, I had to keep busy to keep from being anxious. I realized how much I could get done in one day.”
Natalie also added more fruit, vegetables, and tea to her diet. “I would also steam my face a lot. I feel like it really helped with my sinuses and made me feel like I was taking care of myself.” Similarly, Alex took up yoga, claiming that waking up early and starting her day with some productive movement made her feel better and encouraged her to keep the momentum going.
After her challenges with Covid-19, Sarah began to drink water regularly, as well as taking a variety of vitamins. “Vitamin C definitely helped my healing process—and now I take it every day, just to be safe.”
The notion that contracting Covid-19 is always deadly and a sign of irresponsibility should be dispelled sooner rather than later. As science continues to try to understand where this virus originated from, how it infects humans, and the vaccine, the societal stigmas need to be addressed. Falling ill can be inevitable with the aggressive transmission rate. However, the need for community support and unity, as well as the provision of valid resources, are essential to helping our Canadian and UTM communities heal.