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“Mass Confusion”: Coronavirus and Fulbright Grants

(Brasília - DF, 18/03/2020) Coletiva à Imprensa do Presidente da República, Jair Bolsonaro e Ministros de Estado..Foto: Carolina Antunes/PR

Citizen Truth talked to Fulbright grant recipients in Brasil and Spain about their unique situations and the different ways the crisis is affecting their lives and the lives of others in their respective countries.

The Coronavirus crisis has had a massive international effect on education. As schools have shut down, students’ learning has been impacted dramatically. Teachers have also been impacted, and United States citizens receiving Fulbright grants to teach in countries around the world find themselves in a precarious position as they have either been forced to leave the countries they were working in or have been strongly encouraged to do so.

Citizen Truth talked to Fulbright grant recipients in Brasil and Spain about their unique situations and the different ways the crisis is affecting their lives and the lives of others in their respective countries.

Henry, Brasil

People receiving Fulbright Grants around the world around the world are upset and confused regarding the situation. Henry said that “most other people I know are really angry. I can’t speak for people in other countries but in Brasil there had already been so many mistakes. There were several miscommunications regarding how much grant money we would receive. The other thing was that without alerting us they changed the number of hours we were expected to work a week from 20 to 25, and then from 25 to 30. And essentially the announced the cancellation of the program right after that and told us that we had to go back to the United States within three to four days pretty much without any warning. So, people are very upset. Some people have tossed around the idea of staying but everything we’ve received from the Fulbright Commission has demonstrated that that is not really a feasible option.”

Henry told Citizen Truth, “while I’m obviously upset about having to go back home and missing out on the remaining 8 months of my grant, I’m trying to see things from the perspective of the state department and the Fulbright Commission. People do seem to think it’s somewhat ironic that they’re sending us from a country that has a fairly small number of coronavirus cases to the United States which has so many more.”

He believes that “the logic is that once we’re back in the United States the State Department and Fulbright Commission no longer has any responsibility for us.”

However, he did say that he thinks “things are going to escalate here in Brasil pretty quickly. The value of the Brasil’s currency, the real, is dropping very rapidly. Right after I arrived in Brasil the real was worth less on the dollar than it had ever been in history, and now for the first time ever 5 reals equal one dollar. I don’t expect the Coronavirus to do anything but make the situation worse. In an economy like Brasil’s, if a pandemic grinds life to a halt it would be disastrous for the millions of Brasilians who work in informal economies. Many of these people aren’t eligible for unemployment benefits or other types of social safety nets that apply to workers in the formal economy. I know they’re discussing closing the beaches in Rio due to the virus and if the beaches close, there’s going to be catastrophic economic fallout for all of the tens of thousands of people across the entire city whose livelihoods are based around selling drinks and ice cream on the beach, working at restaurants and bars, and other services in both the formal and informal economy. “

Henry thought that most people receiving Fulbright grants will follow orders to evacuate. “I think most people will comply with the demands to leave the country. I would be really shocked if there were more than a handful of people who went that route.”

Regarding the rest of their grant money, Henry told Citizen Truth “We were originally supposed to receive our grants in four or five installments, and we’re going to receive about half of the grant money that we were originally supposed to receive. I’m lucky to be in a position where for the moment my parents are able to financially support me such that I don’t need to scramble for money or anything. As unfortunate as it is to lose a portion of the grant money, it’s not something that’s going to have a tremendously negative financial impact on me.”

In terms of ways that the Fulbright Program could be handling the situation better and steps they could take to ensure that a similar catastrophe doesn’t happen in the future, Henry believes that “there could be a policy in place so that who are abroad and have had  their Fulbright Grant cancelled due to this would  have the option of receiving that grant in 2021 instead. But I do understand how that could be somewhat difficult.”

“The Fulbright program in Brasil is funded by the State Department and also the Brasilian government, but mostly the Brasilian government,” Henry continued. “So, the program is kind of hanging on by a string as it is because of budget cuts from the Bolsonaro government. I actually really worry that something like this might prove fatal for programs like the one in Brasil that are already hanging over the precipice. I would also like to think that the commission could help refund people for rent, WIFI and other payments that they’re basically going to have to forfeit because of leaving the country at such short notice.”

“I also think it would be helpful if they assisted in the mechanics of the evacuation itself. For example, I’m in Rio Branco, in Acre, which is in the far west of the country. There are direct flights back to the United States from both Manaus, in the Amazon, and Brasilia in the center of the country, both of which have confirmed cases of Coronavirus but nowhere near the number that Rio and Sao Paulo have. So, it would be my preference to have the option to fly out of less affected regions instead of flying out of cities that are the epicenter of the virus in the country. And we’ll have to see how they respond to those requests. In terms of travel they’re both arranging it and paying for it which is both a blessing and a curse. If I was arranging my own flight I would try to stay as far to the west as possible but I ‘m fairly positive that the economic situation is going to force us to fly out of Sao Paulo instead of through Manaus of through Brasilia.”

Regarding the ways that leaders in both Brasil and the United States are handling the crisis, Henry said that “In democracies we sometimes underestimate the degree to which populations look to their leaders for reassurance guidance, even if these leaders are fairly unpopular like Trump and Bolsonaro. But I think Trump and Bolsonaro have completely dropped the ball on that. They can’t even reassure their own public that they’re not sick with the virus.”

All things aside, Henry says that “Frankly, I feel safer now that I’m back in the states. Obviously the US is far outpacing Brasil in terms of cases and deaths but I think that everyone in Brasil is really bracing themselves for things to get really bad, like if it hits the favelas in earnest where a lot of people don’t even have running water it would be devastating. The Health Secretary already said that they expect their capacity to be overwhelmed by April. And I do expect that the lockdowns in Brasil are going to get really intense. Add in a delicate economic and political situation and I think things could get pretty grim.”

Liz, Spain

When asked about the general attitude among people receiving Fulbright Grants in Spain towards everything going on, Liz responded, “two words: mass confusion.”

According to her, “They sent us an email that was worded in a very intense way and whipped everyone into a frenzy. It said, ‘you are strongly urged to leave,’ but did not say that it was mandatory. However, immediately after the email said that next we need to close our bank accounts, take to our landlords, whatever. So, then everyone was asking, ‘wait are we actually being asked to leave?’ Everyone’s really confused and upset. Most people are going home.”

My roommate also is going back to Canada, partly due to concerns expressed by her parents. Most people in Spain who have left have done so as a result of pressure from family members who have become frantic as a result of the way international media is portraying the situation in Spain.

As in Henry’s case, people receiving Fulbright Grants in Spain are worried about receiving the rest of their grant money, but they have been told they are still going to receive the rest of their payments. Liz told Citizen Truth, “They said as of now we are still going to get paid until June. Even if we leave, we will still get paid, but no one really knows because if the situation escalates the funding could still get cut off. I’m really hoping that we get paid soon because we get an instalment for every two months so if we get paid soon we’ll at least be covered for April and May.”

When asked whether she believes that the State Department is making the right decision in forcing People receiving Fulbright Grants to evacuate other countries and strongly urging them to do so in Spain, Liz stated, “I think it’s incredibly stupid to have us go home. I think it’s the dumbest thing they can do because my mother literally landed in Boston coming from Madrid yesterday and didn’t even get screened at the airport. So hypothetically if my mother and sister have this virus that they’re freaking out about they would be spreading it. There’s nothing mandating them to stay quarantined. They’re going to, but there’s not really any system in place to screen people coming back into the United States. So, I think the State Department is really stupid to force us to go home right now and I think it would be better for us to stay here.”

Liz is worried about the psychological and mental toll the quarantine could have on people. “It’s all fun and games, singing on the balcony right now, but it’s not going to be so fun two and a half weeks in.”

She is committed to staying in Spain, and said “I really can’t go home because my mom works in a nursing home and she’s already on week one of two of her quarantine and if I go home she will have to quarantine again for another two weeks just to go back to work. And I can’t go with my brother because my dad who has respiratory issues is staying with him while my mom is under quarantine. I’m also just telling myself ‘This is a great opportunity and I’m not willing to give it up for something this stupid. when I got the email I honestly broke down and was crying because I really don’t want to go home.”

With regards to the escalating situation in America, Liz remarked that “people in America need to stay as healthy as possible because there’s no social safety net there. We’re not prepared because of politics. That’s what’s failing us. That’s why I’m here.”

The lack of public health care in the United States has left many Americans working abroad with no option but to remain in the country where they are currently living. Several of my friends in Spain don’t have health insurance in the United States, and by returning they would not only be risking their own lives but also putting strain on an already failing system.

The ensuing fallout from the spread of Coronavirus will have massive effects on the global economy and politics but it has already had drastic effects on the world of education. People living abroad with help from Fulbright grants and other similar programs were already in a unique situation, but lockdowns and pressure from the state department have drastically altered many of these people’s lives for the foreseeable future. As health crises and the ways governments react to them continue to evolve and change, so will education.



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