Coronavirus: ‘The Irish Government takes care of people and hopefully that includes me’

American students choose to remain in Belfast and Dublin as virus spreads globally

Ella Klahr Bunnell

When Ella Klahr Bunnell moved from Boston to Belfast last September, she wasn't nervous about living so far from her family. A recipient of a Mitchell scholarship to study on the island of Ireland, Bunnell had already spent five years as an undergraduate student at Stanford University.

"California was three thousand miles away from my family; the flight to California is actually longer than the journey from Boston to Dublin. I was used to being far away. Obviously it's more difficult now because it's such a chaotic and uncertain time."

When the coronavirus started to spread through Europe and the United States, Bunnell contacted her parents for advice. Both doctors, they were working on the frontline with coronavirus patients and so would be unable to host their daughter if she returned.

Kathryn Ammon

“My parents are kind of in the eye of the storm at the moment, especially my dad as he’s the hospital administrator and so fairly involved in handling how to deal with the outbreak. They’re my parents, they always have my best interest at heart, and said if it would cause me anxiety to stay in Belfast I should go back and we’ll figure it out. But it was clear to all of us that it would be better for me to stay here and not expose myself.”


Bunnell's younger sister, who was studying in Barcelona, caught a flight back to the US just hours before Spain declared a state of emergency. She self-isolated upon arrival home and soon after was tested for Covid-19 after experiencing symptoms of the virus. Last Thursday morning, her test came back positive.

“Because my parents picked her up from the airport and drove her to quarantine they aren’t allowed to go into work anymore. She’s young and healthy so I’m not very worried for her, more so for my parents because they’re older,” says Bunnell.

“It also means it really doesn’t make sense for me to go home given that my choices are now to either quarantine myself with someone who has the virus or expose my parents again unnecessarily.”

Bunnell is continuing to work on her dissertation on conflict transformation but has not been on the Queen’s university campus since it closed two days ago.

“It’s a scary, uncertain time. The lack of a concrete timeline on how long our lives will be shut down is particularly difficult. I’m just adjusting to hunkering down and changing how I live my daily live.”

Kathryn Ammon

In Dublin, Texan student Kathryn Ammon, who is studying equality studies at UCD on a Mitchell scholarship, has also decided to stay in Ireland. Her parents and brother moved to Switzerland last year but she is unable to join them as borders have closed.

She doesn’t want to return to the US to stay with family as many either work in healthcare or are immunocompromised. “I don’t have US health insurance but I have cover here in Ireland. I signed up to spend a year in Ireland and my residence hall is still open.”

Four of her roommates, all international students, have flown home and she believes the last is due to leave soon. Ammon is planning to move in with a friend outside campus even though UCD has confirmed it will extend leases for any students living in on-campus accommodation who are unable to return home in May.

“Being on campus right now feels very isolated. Most people are gone and there aren’t many services we can access here. It’s scary but I’m taking comfort from the fact that I have a friends in similar positions.”

Before last August, Ammon had never spent longer than a week abroad. However, she says she feels safer being in Ireland during the pandemic than she would feel in the United States.

“I trust the Irish Government and the Irish system a little more than I trust the US government. I feel I’m in a country where the rate of infection isn’t increasing as badly as other places; it feels safer for now. I’ve seen the Irish Government will take care of people and hopefully that includes me.”

Sorcha Pollak

Sorcha Pollak

Sorcha Pollak is an Irish Times reporter and cohost of the In the News podcast