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Gain insight into the global health and geopolitical risks of studying abroad and review situational awareness tips to discuss with your child before travel.

 

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My job is to keep my finger on the pulse of world events to provide timely, accurate, and actionable information to my clients on topics ranging from typhoons to terrorism to keep them and their assets safe. With the start of college around the corner, hundreds of thousands of students will soon be departing for semesters abroad.

GG_Blog_Study Abroad 2022_Artboard 1 copy 3Studying abroad is an incredible privilege and an often life-changing experience. It fosters personal growth by allowing students to: get out of the mundane, encounter a unique set of challenges, make life-long friends, and gain an appreciation for things they may have previously taken for granted. The opportunity to study abroad should be taken advantage of to the greatest extent possible. But it is important to remember that there are risks involved, especially since your student will be entering a new environment and their risk perception (“spidey sense”) will not yet be calibrated.

To borrow from former Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, there are known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns. 

While it is impossible to really prepare for the unknown unknowns, this article will give you the tools to acquaint yourself with some of the known known risks and help you identify the vectors from which the known unknown risks to your child will arise.


Health

Take stock of their health. Ask yourself: what are my child’s medical conditions and how can they be addressed when they are away? Will they need any specified care should the condition flare up? So, if your child does suffer from any chronic conditions, have a plan. Find out where they can receive quality specialist care and take steps to mitigate their medical risks.

Let us take asthma or other chronic respiratory diseases for example. Due to above-average temperatures and a tourism windfall, Athens, Barcelona, and Milan have all experienced poor air quality this summer and you can count on Hong Kong and Bangkok having high levels of pollution in the winter. If poor air quality will be an issue, your student should monitor the places they will be going and moderate outdoor physical activity/exposure accordingly to mitigate their risk.

It would also be wise to investigate your insurance programs and get a clear picture of what is and is not covered. Then, have a look at where your student is going to see if the local hospitals and clinics will accept your insurance or if you will need to up their credit card limit to cover any medical expenses out-of-pocket.

Monkeypox. When people and groups converge, there is potential for the spread of communicable diseases, including Monkeypox, which has received a lot of media attention lately. Monkeypox is mostly sexually transmitted. It is spread via bodily fluids or extended contact with an infected person's lesions or scabs on their skin or internally. But exposure is also possible from touching contaminated objects, fabrics and surfaces that were in contact with an infected individual. So far there is no recorded transmission to healthcare workers, which suggests that casual contact and airborne transmission are not major threat vectors.

While difficult, it will be important to either talk with your child about this health risk or have them consult a physician to ensure they are aware of the risks and understand their options, including getting the smallpox vaccine and simply using protection. Not sharing bedding and towels, as well as disinfecting surfaces, including gym equipment, are other good practices that should be followed to reduce the risk of infection.  


geopolitics

 

Ukraine. Inflection points in war can be dangerous, especially when one party–Russia–has little regard for international norms. Should Ukraine be able to mount an effective counter-offensive, things will start to heat up by mid-September when Russia plans on annexing occupied Ukrainian territory. What this means for those in Europe at the time is that the rhetoric is bound to intensify. President Putin may try to leverage the threat of nuclear weapons use (again) to deter further NATO arms transfers to Ukraine. We can also expect the Russians to threaten the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant should Ukrainian forces begin to get close. But fear not, even in the untoward event of an intentional leak at the Zaporizhzhia plant or even the use of tactical nuclear weapons by Russia, these events would not immediately trigger WWIII no matter what you hear on the news.

Do Not Get Too Close. Your child studying abroad should avoid all regions within 50 miles of the Ukraine border and should not travel to Belarus or Transnistria. At this point, Belarus is almost a Russian puppet state and travel there brings the risk of arbitrary detention. One of the levers Russia can pull to maintain pressure on and to punish the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is destabilizing Moldova. Moldova has a semi-autonomous pro-Russian region called Transnistria. Russia has been trying to pull Moldova into the conflict since April with false flag bombings in Transnistria. But recently as July 29th, the U.S. Embassy in Moldova issued a security alert surrounding bomb threats at Chisinau International Airport (KIV) and at the Supreme Court of Justice in Moldova proper. We expect these threats to continue.

Winter of Unrest? If you have filled up a tank of gas recently, you have experienced the soaring energy costs which are tied to the conflict. Russia provides Europe with a third of its natural gas. If your child is studying in Europe, the costs of energy are going to get worse and there is a strong likelihood of a full-out natural gas shortage if Russia turns off the taps. If this does happen, between inflation, recession, and energy shortages, Europe could be in for some serious economic pain. Often this type of pain triggers unrest and political change. No matter where your student is and how “safe” the country is, protests should always be avoided.


Situational Awareness Tips for Your Traveling Child

 

Communicate to your child the importance of knowing their surroundings. Awareness is paramount to mitigating risk—and avoiding a potentially dangerous predicament. As a rule, it is always best to blend in when possible. Sticking out – by being loud or wearing very different or expensive-looking clothing – can make someone into a target for theft or worse.

Who: Your child should observe those around them. Receiving stares from groups of people, especially males between ages 15-24, is a sign they should relocate. It is also possible for your child to spot if someone is “tailing” them. These signs include seeing the same unknown individual at the same time every day or seeing the same unknown person appear in different settings. In general, if your student notices that an individual’s emotions/body language seem out of place as compared to others in the vicinity, they should stay away.

What: Your child should know what the different laws are. In Thailand, for example, insulting the monarchy is a crime and in Singapore, foreigners may not participate in any protests. In China, Hong Kong, and many other destinations, travelers should have little expectation of privacy, electronic or otherwise. Your child should also understand that if they have a large social media following, speaking out against the Chinese Communist Party can result in detention. Some countries forbid photographing critical infrastructure and police, military, and government buildings. The last thing anyone wants is to incur are legal troubles abroad, so it is critical to identify novel laws in the countries your child plans on visiting ahead of time.

Where: Your child should know where not to wander. They should check the Department of State Travel Advisory site for the countries they plan on visiting and check under the Safety and Security tab if there are any cities or neighborhoods with particularly high crime rates or other threats. You should encourage your student to talk to locals to find out what areas to avoid. If they are in Europe, your child should avoid walking through parks at night.

When: Your child should keep timing in mind when planning trips. They should avoid visiting countries, particularly countries with a record of political violence, during an election. Similarly, avoiding traveling to tropical countries in the peak of their rainy season is prudent. For example, Bali’s peak monsoon season is in January and Thailand’s southeast coast (Phangan, Koh Tao, and Koh Samui) experiences serious downpours from October to December. Not only does inclement weather get in the way of enjoying outdoor activities, but it can also disrupt air and sea travel and make over-land travel dangerous, particularly in more underdeveloped areas.

 

By reading this, taking an hour to conduct some cursory research, and by having a conversation with your student about situational awareness, you will be setting them up for success.

 

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