African students in Wuhan just want to be evacuated

I am an African student in Wuhan, the centre of China’s ongoing coronavirus epidemic. We want our governments to evacuate us from China — and demand that the politicisation of this request stop. 

The Africans in the city of Wuhan and the Hubei province of China are at high risk of contracting this strain of the  deadly virus, known as Covid-19. The fatality rate of this coronavirus is 4.9% in Wuhan, the highest of any affected city. Furthermore, the lockdown of the city and the fear of being infected by the virus has affected the mental and emotional health of African citizens and students in the city.

Despite their predicament, the narrative of governments and health experts in sub-Saharan Africa is problematic. I have been living and studying in one of the universities in Wuhan since September 2017, and I have confidence in governments in sub-Saharan Africa to do better. Here are my reasons. 

First, the position of the so-called health experts in most African countries is flawed or at best, based on a half-truth. The idea that the mass evacuation of Africans in Wuhan amounts to importing the virus is wrong. There are more than 5 000 students and citizens from sub-Saharan African countries in Wuhan, none of whom have yet been infected, at least to our knowledge. 

WHO guidelines

The World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Chinese government have also developed guidelines for the evacuation of foreigners from Wuhan. According to the WHO’s international traffic technical guidelines on exit and entry screening, and its recommended procedure for evacuation, the students and citizens to be evacuated must be taken from their campuses or locations to a central point, where they are medically tested before they are bused to the Wuhan Tianhe International Airport to board the chartered flight.

This ensures that anyone who tests positive remains in Wuhan to receive medical treatment. Those people who test negative are quarantined for 14 days when they arrive in their countries. This is another precautionary measure, to guarantee that anyone who is infected during the flight is observed and isolated for medical treatment to prevent importing the virus through evacuation. 

From these measures, and with the Egyptian case in mind (one case of the virus has been reported in Egypt — so far the only known case in Africa), it is fair to say that if the coronavirus will be imported to Africa, it certainly will not be by one of the evacuees. For instance, all North African students and citizens (those from Algeria, Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Mauritania and Sudan), as well as those from Mauritius and Seychelles were evacuated two weeks ago. There have been no recorded cases among the evacuees, who are still undergoing the mandatory quarantine.

Wuhan’s overwhelmed health system

Second, the narrative that China has a superior health system and capacity to treat students if infected is not entirely correct. It is a known fact that the health system in Wuhan is currently overwhelmed. Those of us on the ground have seen some university facilities being converted to hospitals for patients of the coronavirus. Although the Chinese health system is more advanced than those of most African countries, it is currently overstretched.

Even relatively poor countries such as Bangladesh, East Timor, the Maldives, Mauritania, Nepal, Papua New Guinea, and the Seychelles, have evacuated their citizens and students. Some countries in sub-Saharan Africa such as Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, South Africa and Tanzania, have a better healthcare system than some of those countries, and can do better. Where there is a will, there’s always a way.

Moreover, it feels as if African governments that have not evacuated their citizens are denying us our humanity — they seem to treat us as if we already have the virus. But the consequences for us of remaining in Wuhan cannot be underestimated. For one thing, the academic work that  we are here to do is almost impossible to carry out. And students are experiencing mental and emotional breakdowns, including panic attacks, precipitated by the quarantine.

Growing danger of infection

Thirdly, the infection rates in China keep growing. It may be more dangerous to keep us here. Most countries in the Americas, Europe, Asia and the Middle East (including North Africa) evacuated their citizens and students when there were fewer than 1 000 recorded cases. As of February 20, there were 74 576 confirmed cases and 2 118 deaths. Wuhan has been on lockdown for weeks — the entire city is a highly contagious zone. The longer African citizens stay in Wuhan, the higher our chances of being infected. 

There is no better time to evacuate the students and citizens from the epicentre of the outbreak than now. 

On the diplomatic front, this instance case presents a litmus test on how African States are able to tactfully assert their agency in protecting their interests and the welfare of their citizens abroad. At the moment, most of the nationals from sub-Saharan Africa are helpless and feel abandoned by their governments.

International relations

It has been rumoured that sub-Saharan governments are being careful not to offend the Chinese government, as evacuating their citizens may be interpreted as an unfriendly act. This thinking is not only problematic but also shallow. From my experience in China, I believe that the Chinese government is interested in building and strengthening diplomatic ties, rather than making enemies. With the exception of South Africa, countries from the Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) bloc have already evacuated their citizens; African countries should also demonstrate their sovereignty and assertiveness in protecting their interests abroad.

African citizens in Wuhan are feeling increasingly helpless and abandoned by their governments. It is time for African governments to show that they truly value the humanity of their citizens — by bringing us home.

Mickey Adney is an African student in Wuhan


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