Working Out Country: ‘The pandemic just made it harder’

When maths teacher James Prodger left the UK with his wife and toddler to work in Singapore a couple of years ago, he envisioned a stint abroad peppered with exciting holidays in Southeast Asia and regular trips home to see family. Then, of course, the pandemic put paid to those plans.

“Covid-19 really put a spanner in the works for us,” he says. “We were always intending to come here with the intention of being able to go home every six months.”

“We went home three times in the first year and then we had friends due to come out for a holiday in Bali, but all those things we were looking forward to just disappeared.”

For many people working abroad, the pandemic has forced a rethink about how – and where – they choose to live. Those used to flights home available at the click of a button now face travel restrictions and often, costly periods in hotel quarantine.

That’s changed the equation for those already working overseas, as well as for those considering a future career move outside their home country. It’s also prompted questions about sustainability. Is it environmentally sound to live on the other side of the planet, if you can only make it work with regular, long-haul flights home?

Students, wearing facemasks amid concerns of the COVID-19 novel coronavirus outbreak, study inside a classroom at the University of Science and Technology in HanoiIMAGE COPYRIGHTGETTY IMAGES
image captionVietnam’s success at controlling the spread of Covid-19 has made it a more attractive country to work in

Andrew Wigford runs Teachers International Consultancy, which recruits teachers to work in schools in 80 countries around the world.

He recently surveyed 250 British teachers who are either working abroad already or have expressed interest in doing so. He says a growing number of respondents are interested in working in countries where Covid-19 appears to be under control.

“Vietnam, Thailand have been very good at controlling the virus,” he says. “They’ve become more of a focus. Teachers who had never thought of working in those countries started thinking about working there.”

And he says, some teachers – particularly those who are new to international work – have been thinking twice about whether they want a career abroad at all.

“What we’re still finding now is quite a few teachers are moving back towards the UK as a result of the pandemic. Some of our European schools have seen a rise in applications, as people look to be closer to their families.”

Children wearing face masks gather around a table inside their classroom in SingaporeIMAGE COPYRIGHTGETTY IMAGES
image captionSome countries have also tightened restrictions on working visas because of Covid

The Singapore-based consultant says the pandemic has had other unexpected consequences for the international teaching sector, with some countries tightening age restrictions on working visas.

“International teachers in Qatar used to be able to apply for jobs up until the age of 60,” he said. “Now it’s 50.”

Australian teacher Sam Trelly recently decided to give up her job in Singapore and return home to Melbourne. She spoke to the BBC during 14 days of mandatory hotel quarantine, time which she says was mostly spent playing a purpose-bought Nintendo Switch.

“If it wasn’t for Covid I probably would have looked at another country,” she said. “The only one that seemed a safe option was actually Vietnam.

“But in the end, the uncertainty around travel and border restrictions loomed large. “My brother had a baby back in Victoria. My grandma hadn’t been very well. I definitely felt that option to go home for a visit wasn’t there like it would normally be.”

image captionAustralian teacher Sam Trelly recently decided to give up her job in Singapore and return home to Melbourne

For James Prodger in Singapore, the thought of being unable to get home quickly for a family emergency, fills him with dread.

“A major consideration for us is our parents. My wife’s parents, they are in their 70s,” he said. “What happens if one of our parents gets ill? That’s always in the back of our minds.”

The pandemic has also changed the way some migrants feel about living and working in the UK.

Alex Dreisin, an economist from New York, moved to London in 2008. She has since found a partner, bought a house and had a baby. Although her parents were able to visit the UK to meet their new grandchild in early 2020, the pandemic has prevented Alex and her family from taking any further trips across the Atlantic.

She says the coronavirus crisis hasn’t changed her mind about living overseas but it has made it harder.

“I don’t think Covid necessarily changed anything about being an expat – it’s magnified the challenges that were already there,” she says.

“What was a pretty straightforward seven-hour flight to New York now just feels a lot more complicated and while video chats have been good to get us through, we’re all really looking forward to some hugs!”

James Prodger, his wife and son
image captionJames Prodger and his family had been looking forward to lots travel while living in Singapore

As vaccine rollouts gather pace around the world and borders start to reopen, there will be a rush to book flights – not just from holiday-makers desperate for some sun, but also from those who haven’t seen their families for months or even years, outside of a screen.

James Prodger and his family will be among them.

“Singapore’s great,” he says. “But it’s not great when you can’t leave.”

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