After an intense 48 hours, Cristina Santiago, a 22-year-old Spanish student doing her fifth year of medicine in the Italian city of Milan, is back at home with her parents in Ferrol, in Spain’s northwestern Galicia region.
“On Saturday night I returned from Rome to my student residence in Milan, where 300 people live, 90 of them Spanish,” she recalls. “I was planning on staying. But then a colleague said that he was going back to Spain because his parents had asked him to return. Then another one left.”
“Between Sunday and Monday, practically all of us left,” she says. “Even the Italians who come from other parts of the country. The residence was empty. It was like a stampede. The fear was not so much about catching the coronavirus, but about being trapped in the city if a quarantine was declared.”
Cristina Santiago is not the only Erasmus exchange student to have returned to Spain. Many others on the European study program have left, or are about to leave, the regions of Italy most affected by the Covid-19 coronavirus. Lombardy, Veneto and Emilia Romagna have cancelled classes until Friday, but students doubt that schools will reopen on Monday, and they are afraid of getting trapped in their cities.
So far, the Spanish government has done nothing more than issue recommendations through the Spanish Service for the Internationalization of Studies (Sepie), telling its nationals currently in Italy to follow instructions from local authorities. Information about the disease has been provided, as well as consulate numbers to call in case of an emergency.
By contrast, the Basque Country regional government has asked Erasmus exchange students who hail from this northern Spanish region to return home.
Neither the Ministry of Universities nor university officials themselves know how many Spanish Erasmus students are taking classes in Italy, but there are hundreds of them just in the three northern regions affected by the coronavirus, according to information provided by several university rector’s offices. The latest official figures show that in the academic year 2017-2018, there were 8,487 Spanish Erasmus students in Italy.
Spanish university officials have been in touch with their students in Italy to check that they are in good health and to offer assistance in case of need. The universities of Oviedo and the Basque Country have guaranteed that if their students return now, efforts will be made to help them with the transition so they can complete their coursework back home. The University of Cádiz has announced that it will not be admitting any new students from Italy.
The health crisis could have academic repercussions for students such as Adrián Fernández, a graduate of the Valencia Polytechnic University who is getting a master’s degree in product design at the Milan Polytechnic University.
“I’ve completed the first four months, and I can’t do the last four in Spain,” he says. “If the beginning of classes is delayed significantly or canceled, I’ll have a problem,” says Fernández, 22. Since Sunday he has been living in a country house three hours south of Milan that is the property of an Italian colleague’s parents. Four other Erasmus students have taken refuge there as well. On Friday, Fernández will fly home from the city of Pisa. “We preferred not to fly out of Milan so we wouldn’t have to take public transportation,” he notes.
But Antón Rey, a fourth-year pharmacy student, has no plans to leave the city of Padua, in the Veneto region. “I am very calm, it’s my family that’s more worried,” says this 21-year-old from Santiago de Compostela. “It might be because of what I am studying, because I know that the virus is easily transmitted yet its mortality rate is low. I am not part of a risk group, my immune system is not depressed, and I am not elderly. And if I do catch it, which I hope I don’t, there shouldn’t be a lot for me to worry about.”
English version by Melissa Kitson and Susana Urra.