Holed up in Wuhan, foreign students look to escape virus-hit city

Overseas students in city at centre of outbreak are confined to dormitories, hoping to avoid coronavirus infection.

Beijing, China – After a week under quarantine in Wuhan, where China‘s new coronavirus emerged late last year, some of the city’s thousands of international students are feeling isolated and anxious, with some hoping they can be evacuated.

Four of an estimated 500 Pakistani students in the city have already been confirmed to have the virus, Pakistan’s State Minister of Health Zafar Mirza said on Wednesday. Others, holed up in their dormitories, worry they too will contract the disease; their fears fuelled by misinformation.

“You can understand people are kind of paranoid,” said Mohammad Samiul Ahsan, a student from Bangladesh, who is vice president of the Wuhan University International Students’ Union.

Ahsan has been working to calm their fears, dispel rumours and keep them informed.

He said most students were staying inside their dormitories.

“We try to tell them, the situation you are in, we are in also.”

Wuhan is an education hub with more than 30 colleges and universities welcoming students from around the world. In total, there are 492,185 foreigners studying in China. 

Advice from university administrators, which was shared with Al Jazeera by students who have now left China, warned them against eating from shared dishes and gave instructions on how to keep living spaces properly cleaned and well-ventilated.

Ahsan said he has been on-call nearly 24 hours a day since the quarantine started, coordinating with college officials since Monday to deliver meals three times a day to those in the dorms.

Japan - Wuhan
Countries including Japan and the US have begun evacuating their nationals from Wuhan, but few stuidents have that option [Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP]

Ahsan said 500 international students are on the campus.

Second week under quarantine

On Monday, Pakistani media outlet The Express Tribune published a video of a group of masked students from Wuhan University of Science and Technology describing food shortages and calling on the authorities to rescue them.

Muhammad Furqan Rauf, a 30-year-old chemistry and chemical engineering master’s student said he is concerned conditions will further deteriorate.

Rauf said he has filed a report to officers at Pakistan’s embassy in Beijing suggesting an evacuation plan, a mandatory health check for students and quarantine, if necessary before they travel.

“We are not going to create any unnecessary panic, we are just worried about our health,” he said.

Students from other countries, including Kenya, India, and Uganda took to Twitter early in the week to call for a response from their governments about an evacuation plan.

Kenyan Cornelius Mulili, 28, who is studying for a doctorate in botany and asked that his university not be named, was also among the people on Twitter appealing to their embassies for assistance.

The Khan sisters, Chinese-language students from Pakistan, told Al Jazeera that they were not worried about remaining in Wuhan [YouTube Screengrab]

Mulili said he felt calmer calm now because his embassy had started being more responsive after he posted his tweets.

“It’s cutting across the international community because it’s a serious matter,” he said. “The most important thing is taking precautionary measures.”

Worried families

Other students, including 21-year-old Daniel Pekarek from the Czech Republic, are trying to create a travel plan to get out of Wuhan.

Pekarek said on Tuesday that he had been in contact with the Czech Embassy and the French Embassy about getting evacuated via France.

“My family is under pressure and they are scared for me,” Pekarek said.

“I will return the first moment I can to Wuhan because I have many friends here and my girlfriend is here.”

Wuhan, China
A worker wearing a face mask sprays disinfectant along a path in Wuhan which has been sealed off to try and curb the spread of the virus [Arek Rataj/AP Photo]

For now, his most pressing concern is how to pay his water bill when the building where he usually does that is closed.

China’s efforts to contain the virus have affected 20 Chinese cities, preventing 56 million people from travelling during the Lunar New Year holiday, normally one of the busiest travel times of the year.

Hubei province, where Wuhan is located is home to 11 million people and tens of thousands of foreign residents and students. It is also the location of the vast majority of coronavirus cases.

The United States and Japan have already begun evacuating their citizens while other countries including  Australia, Britain and France are also preparing evacuations.

24-hour Wuhan hotline

The Wuhan Municipal Affairs office has opened a 24-hour hotline to answer questions from foreigners who remain in the city.

A representative from the office said he had received calls from Chinese people outside of Wuhan searching for accurate information on the situation. Foreigners who have called the office most frequently ask about when and how they can leave, he said.

For many students in countries that have not announced evacuation plans, that remains unclear.

But the Khan sisters – Saher, 24, and Mehar, 21 – Chinese language students from Pakistan, said they were not worried about remaining in Wuhan because they felt they had enough supplies to be comfortable.

The sisters left their dorm room for the first time in a week on Tuesday wearing gloves and masks and filming the trip for their YouTube channel. They found that most stores were open and even saw people out jogging.

They are sceptical of reports and videos circulating on the internet that describe extreme conditions, but they have also seen from friends the ways anxieties can multiply and spread when people are cooped up in their dormitories.

“So many people are alone here,” Saher said. “We are sisters. So I can understand.”

Police forces in Wuhan have punished people for publishing and spreading unverified information.

Ahsan from the Wuhan University International Students’ Union said what he finds most important is to stamp out smaller rumours like those promoting false remedies for illness, which create confusion among people who have to remain in Wuhan and for families who are reading about the situation from outside China. 

“[Panic] will affect other people, also,” he said.

Ahsan said he has received queries from students who have returned to their home countries and are wondering about when the semester will start again.

The education ministry has said the holidays will be extended, but not when classes will resume. 

For students who have remained on campus through the quarantine, the bigger concern is when some semblance of normality will return.

“We are thinking about when it will stop.”

Source: Al Jazeera