The Price of Being Quarantined

Picture this. You’re a college student studying abroad in China. You’ve been there for three weeks when you get an email: the coronavirus is spreading, and you need to return to the United States. You book a flight, and days later you’re back at school. The administration reaches out and requests that you go into quarantine on campus to ensure you’re symptom-free. However, there’s a catch. They’re charging you $800. Welcome to American University. 

If this seems obscene to you, you’re not alone. When I first heard this story, I was in disbelief. Why would someone pay to be quarantined? Shouldn’t safety precautions transcend financial circumstances? The coronavirus is spreading rapidly, killing over 2,000 people and infecting more than 75,000. In the United States, Americans returning from China’s Hubei province, where the coronavirus originated, are being quarantined for a mandatory 14 days. The outbreak isn’t something to be taken lightly, especially among travelers returning from China. So, why did American University drop the ball on assisting students that cannot afford the quarantine fee? I reached out to a fellow student at American who was evacuated from China to get the full story. 

“It was around 10 pm when I got the email,” recollected the American University junior. They had been in China for about three weeks on a study abroad program. During Chinese New Year, they traveled from Beijing to Shenzhen, ready to hit the beach and enjoy the sunny weather. Except all of the beaches were closed due to the coronavirus outbreak. Late at night, the university sent an email telling them to evacuate and return to the US as soon as possible. Students would need to book their own flight and the university would reimburse them up to $750. In a mad dash, they searched for the fastest flight home, booking a flight scheduled for a few days later.

people standing and walking around at a mallThe trip back felt surreal. During a layover in Japan and again in US customs, they were tested for symptoms of the virus. “There was some fear of ‘do I have this?’ at every checkpoint. It felt like I was almost smuggling something out of the country.” Back at school, they felt oddly out of place. “It was like I was dropped into a movie that was already half an hour in, where everyone else knows what is going on and I’m left to catch up on my own.” They had no housing lined up on campus. Luckily, some friends let them stay the night at their apartment. “I got back and all my friends were like, ‘you need to go to the hospital and get checked out or we’re not going to let you stay’ which was fair. I respected it, dropped my luggage off, and went to the hospital. After my check-up, they said I was good to go.”

Three days passed before the university reached out. “I got another email that basically said, ‘We want you to self-quarantine for two weeks, and we’d like you to do it on campus.’ They asked us to pay $800 for a room in Nebraska Hall. The alternative was finding a place off-campus by ourselves.” Students who weren’t returning to campus housing were stuck in an ultimatum. Either pay $800 for two weeks worth of housing, or go...where? Many opted to stay with friends and hope for the best. “I crashed on friends’ couches because I wasn’t going to throw that money over.” It was hardly the welcome back they’d hoped for. 

person holding money

The quarantine was lifted early,  and students returned to their daily routines. Still, they were left indignant. While friends and professors jumped to action, offering housing and help catching up on classes, the administration was essentially useless. Returning students felt neglected, first by the university’s delayed communication, and then by their steep price of protection. The rest of the school was neglected, too. In the three days before the university reached out, returning students visited campus and interacted with the community. As the student at American put it, “I didn’t just go hide under a rock for three days. I got back and needed to see my friends and come to campus already because I had to register for classes. If I was going to bring the disease to campus, it was a little too late.” The schools’ lack of an efficient and effective game plan put the entire campus at risk.

The coronavirus may be novel, but evacuating students is not. Last year, American University and many other schools recalled students studying abroad in China amidst the Hong Kong protests. It’s a disappointing but unavoidable possibility of studying abroad. Colleges must establish programs with the necessary safeguards to comprehensively address this reality. Most importantly, these programs must be accessible for all students, regardless of financial circumstances. No one deserves to have a price tag put on their safety. It’s in the best interest of the entire university to implement affordable precautionary measures. While the coronavirus has left communities struggling to manage the outbreak, the burden should not fall on the shoulders of a college student. It’s these lapses that can proliferate the outbreak and cause a variety of financial problems associated with higher education.


Photos: 1, 2

Sources: 1, 2, 3