/ 21 February 2020

Students ‘abandoned’ in Wuhan

Screening For Coronavirus At Addis Ababa Bole International Airport
(Luke Dray/Getty Images)

African university students in Wuhan, the centre of the ongoing coronavirus outbreak, feel abandoned by their governments — and are desperate to be evacuated.

“It’s a very sad, disheartening and lonely situation to be in … when I see others getting evacuated while I have no idea when it will be the turn of my countrymates and myself,” said one woman, who identified herself as Dwamena from Ghana.

The Mail & Guardian spoke to a dozen students from Botswana, Ghana, Sierra Leone and South Africa, who have all been in lockdown in Wuhan since quarantine measures were announced on January 23. Although exact numbers could not be confirmed, there are thousands of African citizens thought to have been caught up in the quarantine.

Ludo Macheng, a masters student from Botswana, had booked a flight to return home on January 24. All flights out of the city were cancelled the day before. “In a matter of hours, I saw all my plans come to a crushing halt,” he said. “In all honesty, I felt trapped and even though I understood — or at least tried to understand — the reasoning behind the shutdown, that didn’t exactly stop the waves of emotions that overtook me. Shock, panic, anger, helplessness and fear, all in one go.”

The students, all of whom are in China on scholarships from the Chinese government, have been confined to their university residences. The universities provide three meals a day, and the Chinese government has provided face masks and thermometers. “Dormitory gates were locked and we couldn’t leave … The truth is, cabin fever isn’t fun and has led to several panic attacks, even on my side,” said Macheng.

“My worst moment ever in my life is now,” said a postgraduate student from Sierra Leone, who asked to remain anonymous. “I am fed up with this indoor life. My mind is not at rest. I am thinking every day to rejoin my family. Life is boring and sometimes unbearable.”

Although the university has set up an online store to allow students to purchase essentials, it has run out of most goods — and most African students are struggling to access cash as they are unable to go to a bank to withdraw money.

Michael Addaney, a postgraduate student from Ghana, was supposed to be travelling to Amsterdam in late January to take up a visiting fellowship at Leiden University. He is not allowed to travel now. He says that the Ghanaian government has been relatively responsive, and has provided limited funding to students, but that it needs to do more — especially when compared to countries that have evacuated their citizens.

“It’s not easy processing such moments, as it makes me realise the value our governments place on us. Countries such as Bangladesh, Kazakhstan, Algeria, Morocco, Egypt, Mauritius and Seychelles have evacuated their citizens … These [actions] demonstrate that they genuinely care about their citizens,” he said.

Addaney added: “Though I am happy for those evacuated, I feel less valued and cared for by my government. I am proudly black but I have realised that necessity and relevance [of] being a national of certain countries … If our leaders truly value our lives and that our lives matter, they would have acted in a more humane matter by evacuating us.”

As of Thursday afternoon, the death toll from the Coronavirus outbreak was 2118, with 74 576 infections reported in China. Only one student who spoke to the M&G —Dwamena, from Ghana — reported having experienced any potential symptoms. “Symptoms of the virus are the same as common illnesses we usually have such as headaches, fever, a cold, shortness of breath and coughs. So even if I experience such symptoms, I immediately start to panic, thinking I have contracted the virus,” she said.

Addaney said that he had seen authorities isolate one student after they showed some of the symptoms of the virus. “This was a watershed moment for me as it gave a human face to all the news I have been hearing about the virus. From that day, I became very serious and radical in adhering to all the preventative measures.”

Mpetha Sthembiso Motaung, a South African student, compared the experience of quarantine to being imprisoned. “We are stuck and it is driving us nuts. I don’t know how solitary confinement feels, but this has given me and other people a very vivid picture.”

Motaung was critical of the South African government’s handling of the situation. “I have received no assistance from my government, nothing at all. All that was done was to refer us to many people … Then we get transferred to the next person.”

Motaung suggested that some African governments may be afraid to act decisively for fear of upsetting diplomatic relations with China. “I feel as though we have been sold [out] by our countries, out of greed … We were hurt to learn that we are sacrificial lambs for our government to maintain its relations with China.”