The latest Australian case was confirmed on Thursday night in Queensland, where health authorities said a 37-year-old Chinese woman had been infected with the virus. The woman was travelling with the same tour group as the four previously confirmed cases in Queensland and is currently isolated in a stable condition at Gold Coast University Hospital.
A second plane of Australian evacuees from China arrived on Christmas Island on Thursday, taking the total number of those in quarantine in the detention centre to 276.
Health Minister Greg Hunt said the virus could have “catastrophic respiratory outcomes”, with confirmed cases increasing by up to 20 per cent a day. “This is a very serious moment,” he told Federal Parliament. Victoria’s chief health officer, Brett Sutton, said the rate of infection could mean the number of cases in China was actually as high as 300,000.
Global ratings agency S&P has warned Australian universities’ credit ratings will come under increasing pressure if the outbreak lasts through the first semester. It has estimated the epidemic could cost universities $3 billion and said the timing “could hardly have been worse” for Australia’s third-largest export industry.
The chancellor of the Australian National University, Julie Bishop, told The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age the university was looking at a range of options to support families that had made “considerable sacrifices” to ensure their children could get an education in Australia.
“We don’t want to disappoint them,” the former foreign minister said. “It’s a huge challenge for universities around the world.”
Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said on Thursday the government was consulting with the sector on measures to stop them hemorrhaging cash, including delivering more courses online after the sudden ban on all non-Australian residents from mainland China entering the country on Saturday.
Getting students to access learning material in China will pose a major challenge. Websites such as Google and YouTube are blocked and accessing them would require students to mask their location, putting them at risk of drawing the attention of Chinese authorities.
Mr Frydenberg said there might also be opportunities “for some of the universities to provide quarantine” for those Chinese students who were coming to Australia.
International Education Association of Australia chief executive Phil Honeywood, who represents the international interests of Australian universities, confirmed plans were underway to host students once the travel ban was lifted.
“There will be urgent discussions with government authorities as soon as that decision to allow students into the country is made,” he said.
He said once the ban was reviewed on February 14, universities would be making strong commitments to ensure suitable quarantine arrangements were in place as most would “like to be able to teach students face to face”.
“Otherwise the damage done in terms of relations with domestic students would just be really difficult to overcome,” he said. “They would probably have the option of an outer suburban or regional campus that did not involve interaction with other students until the time the virus had been declared contained.”
The University of Sydney, which said it was “developing contingency plans if the numbers of impacted students dramatically increase”, has an outer-suburban campus in Camden, south-west of Sydney, used for veterinary and agriculture students. The University of Melbourne has an agriculture campus in Dookie, 220 kilometres north-east of Melbourne. The University of Queensland has a 1000-hectare rural campus in Gatton.
Mr Honeywood said student accommodation providers, which house a high concentration of Chinese students, were also preparing for a quarantine period.
“They’ve told me they’ll have chartered buses to take students from their accommodation to the quarantined teaching area and bring them back, to make sure they’re not interacting with the wider community,” he said.
University of Technology nursing student Bella Wang said she would consider the option of a quarantine if there were no extra fees. “If there are no problems after 14 days then we can go back to normal study and life,” she said.
University of Sydney student council representative and international student Abbey Shi said “99 per cent” of students in her WeChat group supported the quarantine idea. But they were still concerned about access to flights, the potential for disease transmission at the quarantine campuses, and that any temporary facilities were properly resourced.
“If their course has lab classes, they want the facilities at the quarantine campus to have labs,” Ms Shi said.
University of Sydney student Iris Chen, who is stuck in China’s Fujian province, said she was concerned the campuses might be located far away and was not sure how the university would accommodate everyone’s needs, since students came from vastly different faculties.
Group of Eight chief executive Vicki Thomson said universities were working closely with government.
“This is new territory for us all and our focus has and must be on our students,” she said. “The government gets this and has been responsive to issues we have raised.”
Universities Australia chief executive Catriona Jackson said the primary focus of every university was “the health and welfare of all our students, Australian and international”.
With Jordan Baker and Paul Sakkal
Eryk Bagshaw is an economics correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based at Parliament House in Canberra
Natassia is a journalist for The Sydney Morning Herald.