International scientists need better support during global emergencies


We found ourselves in Peru in the middle of an international field course when the world began to shut down in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Our experience showed not only the inconsistency in how universities and countries treat students, but also revealed that existing policy at most universities cannot currently support researchers abroad in emergency situations.

In order to continue international science in the face of inevitable pandemics, civil unrest and natural disasters, institutional policies, communication and insurance coverage must improve.

The reason we were in Peru was to lead a plant functional traits course – an international field course offered through a collaboration between the University of Bergen in Norway and the University of Arizona. As course leaders, we come from Norway, China, the US, South America, the UK and Canada. With our students, we were a group of 45 people from four continents and 17 countries – including many multinational students.

At the beginning of March, Covid-19 was spreading, but we received mixed messages about the imminent threat of the virus from government and university leaders. We had to make a decision about whether or not to go ahead with the programme. We had been organising the course for more than a year and we felt an obligation to provide experiences and content to the students, who had already invested in course fees and travel costs. Ultimately, we decided to continue the course as planned.

We communicated with all the students prior to departure, shared what information we had, and assured each person that they could opt out of the course if they wanted to. Unsurprisingly, no student took this option since it was not clear whether they would be able to recover the costs of the trip and, for many, the course credits were contributing meaningfully to their degree programmes.

As we boarded our flights for Peru on 6-8 March, there were either zero (for those of us leaving 6 March) or one (for those leaving later) confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Peru. We arrived safely in Cusco city and travelled three hours to the Wayqecha Field Station in Manú National Park to immerse ourselves in fieldwork.

By the end of our third day we had learned from multiple sources that all European travellers had three days to get out of Peru or remain stuck there for a month or longer. We began making travel adjustments for our European colleagues and students while continuing to complete as much of our fieldwork as possible.

Many of us from North and South America reached out to our institutions and embassies as well, wondering if we should make similar plans to return home early. We received mixed – or no – responses.

On Sunday evening, 15 March, Peruvian president Martín Vizcarra announced a full travel ban and 15-day quarantine, effective at midnight the next day. We made plans to depart that evening, packed up the lab and all our gear, and left for Cusco on a middle-of-the-night journey through washed-out Andean roads. We arrived in time for some of the Europeans to catch their rescheduled flights, but of the original 45, 27 of us remained in a hotel in Cusco during quarantine, curfew and border closings. We documented some of our time in quarantine on Twitter using #cienciaencuarentena.

Over the following days (and, for many of us, weeks) curfews were extended, alcohol banned, furniture removed to discourage congregating, drones employed outside buildings to allow in-room surveillance, and the number of visible police and military increased until their presence was commonplace.

Several of us experienced episodes of grief, panic and feelings of isolation. Those of us who had managed to leave Peru struggled with guilt, isolation from our peers, and feelings of powerlessness as those left in the country sought some form of resolution from their embassies and home institutions.

Despite being away from our families and friends we were definitely among the lucky ones during the lockdown. We had a nice place to stay and the hotel staff worked diligently to keep us safe, comfortable and well fed.

A highlight of the experience was observing the students display impressive resilience and positivity. One student led daily yoga sessions, two others created a large calendar to help us keep track of our daily accomplishments, and others offered workshops in R, data management and inclusive teaching strategies. One student defended her thesis remotely, and passed with honours.

And against many odds, we were able to conclude our planned coursework, thanks to a modified schedule, Zoom meetings and tolerant hotel staff who allowed us to repurpose common spaces as lab facilities and classrooms.

More than 20 institutions from 17 countries had students or staff in our group facing lockdown in Peru and the varied responses from each reveal the deep deficiencies in how students and international research are valued.

Some students had access to a multitude of university staff that could rapidly extract them from far-off locations. Some advisers were proactive, openly helping with the complex logistics of having to potentially evacuate a student from a foreign country quickly. Other advisers were unavailable and generally hands-off.

Some universities rapidly mobilised teams of staff linked to the central governments and some even attempted to arrange expensive charter flights that would have cost tens of thousands of US dollars. Other universities failed to respond to requests for basic information.

Some governments were immediate in their communication and planning for help, whereas others openly dismissed their citizens’ concerns. In a few cases, students with study visas were denied entry to their countries of residence and instead encouraged to return to their home countries – even if their jobs, families and futures were elsewhere.

Interestingly, the level of support offered was not clearly linked to regional, national or institutional differences in areas such as wealth or exposure to international research.

We were also surprised by how many of our institutions quickly classified this travel as the personal responsibility of the traveller – despite its being externally funded and our participation being approved by each institution. We were there for work or study, collecting data and teaching, or participating in a course, and therefore contributing to the two main purposes of universities: research and education.

The message that we were in essence on our own contributed to some of our feelings of grief, panic and isolation.

In at least one instance, institution-provided travel insurance expired, by default, the day the person was scheduled to return home. Given that additional costs were all the result of an unplanned, extended stay, this insurance was useless.

In order to continue international science in the face of massive disruptions such as Covid-19, our institutions must change. From a policy perspective, faculty and students should be required to submit a detailed itinerary to the institution, so this information is known to the institution in case of emergency; this will only work if these itineraries are monitored, and if flags are raised when, for example, a country suddenly closes its borders.

In such situations, authorities at the institution – not the student’s primary adviser or faculty member’s department head – should be in regular communication with the affected individual.

Institutions should also carry blanket insurance policies to cover all international research, and these policies should include clauses that cover unplanned extensions of travel in events such as civil unrest, pandemics, personal injury or natural disasters.

Concomitant with these specific improvements, there must be a cultural shift in how institutions view fieldwork and field courses. There is no real substitute for these kinds of intensive field courses – you can learn things in weeks that might take months or years to learn in other contexts. International collaboration and global research projects are worth the effort and risk and will only become more vital to the work that universities do. But, institutions must better support the researchers and students who take up this work to avoid any more experiences like ours.

Author Bio: Sehoya Cotner is an associate professor in the department of biology teaching and learning at the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities.