Coping strategies: Indian students under Swiss lockdown

The Swiss government has issued a recommendation for all residents to stay at home. Ninad Chitnis

Unable to return home to India due to coronavirus-related flight restrictions, students studying in Switzerland are showing their resilience and inventiveness.  

This content was published on March 27, 2020 - 07:00

A week ago, the Indian government announcedExternal link that it was prohibiting the entry of passengers from Europe (until mid-April at the very least). This includes Indian students studying abroad. In Switzerland they make up the third largest foreign student community (after China and Russia) outside Europe with over 700 scholars.   

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“Isolation is definitely not easy as a foreigner. It is not just your own well-being and the restrictions in Switzerland you have to worry about, but also back home, where you have elderly parents most of whom are suffering from chronic diseases like diabetes and high blood pressure,” Rhythima Shinde, PhD student at the Zurich Federal Institute of Technology (ETHZ), told  

Students like Shinde have to stay on top of Covid-19 information in two countries to ensure they are doing the right the thing.   

“It can be very intimidating,” she says.  

Newcomers can find it especially hard. Ninad Chitnis, a Masters student at ETHZ, has been in Switzerland for two years and is currently doing an internship at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research.  

"I don’t know anyone here as I just moved to Geneva and I can’t make new acquaintances because of the coronavirus situation,” he says.  

Compounding the situation, the pandemic hit Switzerland during the Indian festival of colours Holi, which is an important social event for the diaspora.  

“From the student association's perspective, we had to cancel our Holi event which is disappointing but then again getting the epidemic under control is more important,” says Samarth Shukla, president of the Indian Students Association of Zurich (InSAZ).   

Swiss support  

Given the trying circumstances, the students contacted seem satisfied with how Swiss universities have responded. Many of the schools offer online courses and help students remotely by providing them licensed versions of video conferencing tools like Zoom.  

“The transition was not very difficult. But this was easier for me personally as I work on simulations, and my work is not experimental,” says Shinde.  

For those students performing experiments, access to labs has been restricted to urgent cases only. However, PhD students will still continue to be paid even if they are unable to perform lab work.   

“According to the rector of ETHZ, the time where one cannot work on-site does not count as vacation. This means everyone will be paid their salaries and this non-working period won't count as a leave of absence,” says Shukla.    

Some universities like ETHZ have also taken away some of the stress associated with exams. In normal circumstances a student can fail a course a maximum of two times. ETHZ has decided not to count exam failures in the summer semester of this year towards the two attempts limit.   

Besides assistance from their universities Indian students have also been aided by the Indian missions in Switzerland. They intervened to help a few students board flights to India before the travel ban.   

“There was confusion among airlines about cut off dates for entering India and we helped clarify the situation,” says Piyush Singh of the Indian embassy in Bern.   

He says Indians in Switzerland are not panicking. Most of the enquiries are about finding out the earliest date they can visit India. Singh also praised the role played by Indian students in helping stranded Indian tourists by serving as their first point of contact until the embassy could intervene. 

Shinde transformed her dining table (left) into a work station (right) to continue her research at home. Rhythima Shinde

Coping mechanisms 

These trying times have also helped many Indian students to develop a sense of community. Shinde’s friends boost her morale through frequent video calls, watching Netflix movies together and playing online games.   

She is also using her time in her home away from home to develop her culinary skills.  

“I have not stocked up on groceries but I have a lot of dry food - mostly Indian stuff like poha, lentils, etc. - which is super helpful. I have definitely enjoyed cooking in these times,” she says.   

Shukla loves to keep in shape but has had to adapt his exercise regime due to the restrictions in force in Switzerland.   

“I'm used to playing sports and doing other outdoor activities. I'm not able to do some of this at the moment but still go out for a run or cycling,” he says.   

Others are focusing on maintaining mental wellbeing through practices like meditation and breathwork like Shaili Gour, PhD student in neuroscience at the University of Zurich.

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