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Alone and frightened

Ugandan students in Wuhan-China cry out

Kampala, Uganda | PATRICIA AKANKWATSA | Thomas Kanzira, a 25 old Ugandan is a student in Wuhan; the Chinese city in Hubei Province which is the epicenter of the new coronavirus that has infected over 60,000 people and killed about 2000.

Wuhan which is under quarantine is in virtual lockdown ordered by the Chinese government and Kanzira described to a local television station in Uganda what that situation means for him and colleagues.

“We are stranded in China. If it were up to us, amidst what is happening, we would have left. After the directive on quarantine was passed about 18 days ago, no planes or trains are moving in and out of Wuhan,” said Kanzira in an interview on TV.

“All supermarkets, restaurants and pharmacies are closed. If you did not do your shopping earlier, you would be starving right now. We are self-isolating ourselves just as the Chinese government told us to do”, he said.

“Ugandan students in Beijing have reached out but we have not yet seen any help from the Ugandan Embassy; because of the lockdown by the Chinese government, no efforts can reach us,” he added.

Kanzira says that he first received news of the virus in mid-January when messages warning people to avoid crowded spaces began circulating on social media. But the real worry set in a few days later when universities announced they would shut down as the number of cases and deaths began to rise.

For Kanzira, life under quarantine is like a horror movie.

“The streets are empty; it’s like a scene from one of those Hollywood apocalypse movies,” he says.

Kanzira has at times ventured out to buy necessary supplies, another draining experience of its own.

“When going out I double up on masks and gloves. The minute I arrive back home, I spray my hands with bleach, wash them with anti-bacterial soap, and then clean all the doorknobs I’ve touched” Kanzira narrates on TV.

What has made the entire situation more distressing is what he feels is inaction on the part of Uganda’s government in contrast to governments around the world that moved swiftly to get their citizens out.

“We first heard that the Americans were evacuating their citizens, then other countries followed suit – you watch your colleagues being evacuated and you feel helpless and abandoned”, he added.

Kanzira, a student at Jianghan University, says he and his friends reached out to various Ugandan government officials but were told to follow the guidelines provided by the Chinese government.

“They’ve basically left us to our own devices, they could fly us home and quarantine us for 14 days there,” he says, referring to the maximum incubation period for the virus. The lockdown will be in place here until the virus is contained, that could take months. Schools and offices will remain shut, what will become of us?” he adds.

Government response

Earlier this month, President Yoweri Museveni met with the Chinese ambassador Zheng Zhuqiang and other government officials to discuss the contingency measures and Uganda’s preparedness to prevent coronavirus (officially named COVID-19).

He advised the Ugandans currently in China to remain there since the government of China already put mechanisms to contain and prevent the transmission of the disease.

Dr. Crispus Kiyonga Uganda’s ambassador to Chinawas not in China. He was in Uganda.  And he also said that they were not considering evacuating students from China following the outbreak of the coronavirus because such a move could be dangerous.

“Even if the Government considered evacuating Ugandan students, the existing restrictions on movement between other parts of China and the epicenter of the outbreak Wuhan city in Hubei province would make it difficult”, Kiyonga said.

In early February, parliament asked government through the Prime Minister, Dr Ruhakana Rugunda, to present an evacuation plan after reports that other countries had evacuated their citizens from China.

Dr. Ruth Aceng the Minister of Health in a statement, told Parliament that Uganda will work with the government of China through the Ugandan Mission in Beijing to provide socio-economic support to the students who are confined in Wuhan City that is under total lockdown.

She also told parliament that Uganda does not have specialized knowledge to deal with the coronavirus, and would therefore not evacuate the students.

‘‘It is safe to keep those persons in Wuhan city there because the city is under lock down. Uganda does not have specialized capacity to handle coronavirus. The country is already stressed with outbreaks,’‘Aceng said.

Aceng added that government had failed to charter a plane to airlift the students from Wuhan and bring home the students stranded in Wuhan.

“The government through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is therefore organizing to wire $61000 (Shs222 million) to the students,” she said.

“A total of 65 are known government sponsored students while 40 are on private sponsorship. Our mission in Beijing is in contact with these students on a daily basis. They created a WhatsApp group called Wechat which enables them to chat. The officer designated to follow them up is Amb Philip Kanyoonzi,” Dr Aceng said in a statement she presented to Parliament.

The minister is referring to Wechat; the biggest messaging app in China similar to Facebook and WhatsApp. Unlike these, Wechat can be used for mobile money, video calls and games and lots more.

Government says no Ugandan student in Wuhan has yet contracted the disease.
“During discussions with the Chinese Ambassador to Uganda, we got a reassurance that the Chinese government will do all it takes to ensure that the Ugandan students are well taken care of. Students in the university halls of residence are being provided for food by the universities while those outside the universities have to procure their own food,” she added.

China has reported 1,360 deaths from the virus which is believed to have originated from a market trading in wild animals in the central Chinese city of Wuhan. Uganda has no confirmed case of 2019-novel Coronavirus.

However, the risk importation of the virus into the country is still high due to its rapid spread, according to government.

The decision of whether countries should evacuate or not citizens from Wuhan and other parts of China is a complex one, according to experts.

“To evacuate or not to evacuate is the big question facing African governments right now,” said Hannah Ryder, the CEO of Development Reimagined; an independent international development consultancy with headquarters in China, and with specialists on Africa-China cooperation.

“On the one hand, having students and citizens remain in the lockdown zone is risky,” Ryder said in an article in the influential journal `The Diplomat’, “Yes, the Chinese government, doctors, nurses, and researchers are working 24 hours to treat victims, find a vaccine, and avoid new infections. China’s authorities are even building new bespoke hospitals. But according to news reports, the current public hospitals are full to the brim with potential and confirmed patients.”

Ryder said before the crisis hit Hubei, few African (and most other) embassies knew the exact numbers of citizens in the province, so while they too have been working around the clock to get students’ details including through student’s unions and associations as well as using China’s main social media app Wechat – it is possible that the embassies have missed many stuck in their dorm rooms, alone and worried about what next.

Ryder said the question should not be answered as an individual concern by each African country but as part of the continent’s broader strategy and work with China.

“Given the continent’s need for development, coupled with porous borders, it should be a question the continent urgently grapples with together, kicking off a broader process for more strategic and intentional engagement with China,” Ryder said.

Development Reimagined has crunched the numbers and estimates that at least 15 African countries have over 100 students and citizens in Hubei, a province with around 59 million people; a similar sized population to Tanzania.

In total, we estimate that around 4,600 African students and citizens are, along with the millions of Chinese residents and other international residents currently on lockdown as part of the measures the Chinese government has put in place to control this mysterious virus – for which there is as yet no known vaccine.

The United States, Japan, U.K., South Korea, Australia, and India have evacuated their citizens.According to the WHO advice, people evacuated should be under quarantine for 14 days on their exit from China, which is the incubation period for this strain of coronavirus. That means countries need to have spaces where they can ensure quarantine conditions and facilities to house and monitor a mix of students, families, elderly, and children, all with varying conditions and needs. Countries such as the U.K. have reportedly found military barracks where this is plausible, but on the African continent such facilities are few and far between, according to Ryder.

On the African continent, Algeria, Egypt, Mauritius, Morocco, and Seychelles have evacuated citizens. Algeria also helped evacuate some Tunisian, Libyan, and Mauritanian citizens.

These are all relatively rich countries. But questions remain for them too. What happens if the virus spreads further across China, with further lockdowns in key cities, and pressure builds to evacuate from these areas too? How will governments handle the potentially far larger numbers of citizens affected?

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