African students trapped in coronavirus-hit Wuhan plead for help

Getting out of bed is hard for Thomas Kanzira.

“You wake up every morning and realise you are trapped,” he says. “You keep checking your temperature – you can’t help but wonder if you are infected but just have not started showing symptoms.”

Kanzira, a 25-year-old Ugandan medical student, is among thousands of African students living in Wuhan, the central Chinese city of 11 million people currently under lockdown due to a rapidly spreading coronavirus. The disease, which is thought to have originated in Wuhan late last year, has so far killed almost 500 people and infected tens of thousands more, with cases reported in at least 24 countries around the world.

Kanzira 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 akin to a horror film.

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

Kanzira has at times ventured out to buy necessary supplies, another draining experience in and of itself. “When going out I double up on masks and gloves,” he says. “The minute I arrive back home, I spray my hands with bleach, wash them with anti-bacterial soap, then clean all the doorknobs I’ve touched.”

What has made the entire situation more distressing is what he feels is inaction on the part of his country’s authorities, 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 be evacuated and you feel helpless and abandoned.”

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?”

This is a question asked by many other young people from African countries who have gone to study in China in recent years. The country has become the second-most popular destination for African students attending university abroad, with Beijing offering an array of scholarships amid deepening relations with many countries on the continent.

Earlier this week, Yangtze University announced that a male Cameroonian student had been infected with the virus, making the 21-year-old the first African to be diagnosed with the illness.

So far, Morocco and Egypt have moved to evacuate their citizens, while Algeria also chartered a plane to bring its people home, as well as nationals from Libya, Mauritania and Tunisia. Kenya this week also announced it would evacuate the 85 Kenyans stuck in Wuhan, but only when authorities lift the lockdown.

Based on local media reports, authorities in other African countries, including the governments of Zimbabwe, Sudan, Uganda and Zambia, are among those to have expressed confidence in the Chinese government’s ability to keep their nationals safe, thus suggesting that evacuation is not on the cards. Instead, they have urged people to remain indoors and follow instructions given by China’s authorities.

“The government say they cannot evacuate, this has left us really frustrated,” says Rahab Elhadi Hkreldour Adam, a Sudanese national and student at Huazhong University of Science and Technology.

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