As Covid spreads at exchange student events, university groups call for better information | Yle Uutiset

Asiakkaita yökerho Maxinessa.
Exchange students infected with coronavirus spent time at the Helsinki nightclub Maxine in February. The individuals pictured are not related to the case (file photo).

Image: Petteri Bülow / Yle

University student groups blame sparse information in English and confusing recommendations for the spread of coronavirus among exchange students in Finland.

New exchange students have not generally been allowed to come to Finland since last autumn, but some of those in the country have been linked to a string of Covid-19 clusters.

In January, 150 students attended a party at a bar in Jyväskylä, with more than 100 of them later being diagnosed with Covid infections. In Helsinki, at least 100 were exposed to or contracted coronavirus infections at a party in February. In Lappeenranta, infections appeared after a spa trip, with more than a dozen exchange students falling ill. In Tampere, at least 26 people became ill in an infection chain involving exchange students.

Article continues after photo

Heidi's Bier Barin kyltti Jyväskylässä.

After a student event at Heidi’s Bier Bar in Jyväskylä, most of the participants were diagnosed with Covid-19.

Jaana Polamo / Yle

In the most recent case, at least 20 exchange students from Kuopio were infected after participating in a ski trip to Saariselkä in Finnish Lapland. The University of Eastern Finland said in its press release that students had been repeatedly urged not to go on the trip.

The cases have attracted attention, but exchange students are no less responsible than others, say student organisation representatives.

“I wouldn’t generalise. Certainly, there are many different kinds of people among exchange students, as among native Finns,” said Sanna Heinonen, Secretary General of the University of Eastern Finland’s Student Union.

Heinonen does not believe that cultural differences have played a major role in the choices made by exchange students.

Organisations fill informational gaps

Student organisations say they make every effort to ensure that information about restrictions and recommendations is available to international students.

The Student Union of the University of Eastern Finland has tried to provide as much information as possible about coronavirus in English for the benefit of international students.

The university itself said in a press release that it had repeatedly urged students not to travel.

According to Konstantin Kouzmitchev, a board member responsible for international affairs at the National Union of University Students in Finland (SYL), there is plenty of room for improvement in terms of information. Schools and cities have not always provided comprehensive information in languages other than Finnish, he said.

“At times, NGOs have taken over the authorities’ duties when information has not been sufficiently accessible,” Kouzmitchev said.

The Erasmus Student Network (ESN) is one of Finland’s largest organisers of international student events. The local ESN group in Kuopio was originally involved in organising the ill-fated Saariselkä trip.

However, ESN backed out of the trip in early February, recommended that participants not go and offered them refunds for cancellations.

According to ESN National Board President Toni Tamminen, unclear restrictions and recommendations have confused exchange students.

“We have received a lot of feedback about the fact that university facilities are closed while bars have been allowed to remain open. This has caused confusion,” said Tamminen, a medical student in Kuopio.

How seriously should Finnish recommendations be taken?

Some exchange students also come from countries that have experienced full lockdowns unlike any so far in Finland. It can sometimes be difficult for them to figure out how seriously Finnish recommendations should be taken. Some say it seems strange that for instance bars are open, but that the public is urged not to go to them.

“We have tried to emphasise that recommendations are as important as restrictions,” Tamminen said.

SYL says that student organisations have generally been responsible regarding events.

“Student communities and organisations have cancelled a huge number of events. There have been no official student events,” said Kouzmitchev.

However, the union’s power is limited: private companies cannot be barred from organising trips or events, nor can anyone be forced to stay home.

“Of course, we have expressed the hope that people would not be encouraged to go on group trips like this. But everyone has their own responsibility and freedom as to how they spend their free time,” said Heinonen.

International students more prone to loneliness

Student organisation leaders point out that exchange students are struck particularly hard by isolation as they usually lack family, friends and safety nets in Finland.

“I really feel bad for them. Of course, they want to get to know this new country, its culture and student life,” said Heinonen.

“The vast majority of exchange students have complied with restrictions, switched to distance learning and faced challenges in their mental health,” said Kouzmitchev.

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