As coronavirus spreads around the world, in Wuhan international students feel trapped

Six weeks on from the lockdown of Wuhan, China, many are still stranded and wish their governments had done more.
Image: Family members of Pakistani students studying in Wuhan, China, rally outside the Chinese Consulate for the evacuation of their relatives after the Chinese city was badly hit by the coronavirus, in Lahore, Pakistan
Family members of Pakistani students studying in Wuhan rally outside the Chinese Consulate in Lahore, Pakistan, on Feb. 13, 2020, for the evacuation of their relatives after the city was badly hit by the coronavirus.K.M. Chaudary / AP

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By Betsy Joles

BEIJING — On Jan. 27, days after the Chinese city of Wuhan began its lockdown to stop the spread of the coronavirus, Hafsa Tayyab appeared in an online video alongside a group of fellow Pakistani students appealing to their government to get them out.

"We were hopeful," Tayyab told NBC last week. She said she thought her plea might be answered.

But almost six weeks on, she is among the hundreds of students still stranded in the quarantined city, desperate to return home — long after classmates from other nations were airlifted away from the coronavirus outbreak's ground zero.

"We came to know that our country is not going to evacuate us," she said. Tayyab and other foreign students have been contained on their university campuses, with limited mobility in dormitory buildings. Some feel they have been abandoned by governments yet to coordinate evacuations.

More than 20 countries have evacuated their citizens from Wuhan, where COVID-19 was first identified late last year.

Hafsa Tayyab, a Pakistani student in Wuhan.

But as the virus has spread to more than 100 countries, infecting more than 100,000 people, students from countries including Pakistan, Liberia and Uganda, are still waiting to get out of Wuhan.

Bringing people back is no simple task: Governments have to grapple with the significant health risks and logistical challenges.

But angry families are rallying against what they see as political inaction that's kept their loved ones stranded.

"Our one and only demand is to evacuate our students or at least ship them from the epidemic center," Muhammad Ashfaq Sandhu, Tayyab's uncle, said via WhatsApp.

Sandhu has joined other families in holding demonstrations around Pakistan since late January, calling for the evacuation of the estimated 800 Pakistani students in Wuhan.

Pakistan's authorities have cited concerns about the ability of its health care system to handle the illness.

But Sandhu said the government's decision not to bring students home from Wuhan is unfair after Pakistan allowed citizens to come back from Iran, another hot spot in the outbreak.

According to Pakistan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the citizens who returned from Iran are being housed at the border between Zahedan, Iran, and Taftan, Pakistan, in Baluchistan province.

Some have suggested Pakistan's close ties to China — a political ally and economic partner — explain why the government is handling the situation in Wuhan differently.

"Pakistan stands with the people and govt of China in their difficult and trying time and it will always stand by them," Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan tweeted last month.

Whatever the reasons, for the stranded students and their parents the government's decision not to evacuate is now personal. "The government is not listening, I don't know why they are not listening. They should take care of their children now. This is the time," Sandhu said.

Parents and relatives of Pakistani students in the Chinese city of Wuhan, where the outbreak of the COVID-19 coronavirus began, hold mobile phones during a video call with them during a protest Feb. 19, 2020, to demand that Pakistan's government evacuate their loved ones in Islamabad.Aamir Qureshi / AFP - Getty Images

As more cases are confirmed beyond Asia, countries with less-developed health care systems are being forced to contend with the challenge of how to isolate and care for students if they were to come back home from China.

The World Health Organization listed 13 African countries as priorities for virus prevention measures because of the large movement of people to and from China. There are an estimated 4,600 African students living in Hubei province, where Wuhan is located, according to the Beijing-based consultancy Development Reimagined.

Patience Handful Dalieh, 31, a journalism postgraduate student from Liberia, said officials from her government, with whom she has spoken via WeChat and WhatsApp, are scared of not being able to properly care for students if they were evacuated.

"They're just telling us we don't have the basic health services back home, so it's preferable you stay there," she said.

Patience Dalieh, a Liberian student in Wuhan.

Stephen Morrison, senior vice president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington, D.C., said that the financial and logistical challenges would stop some states from evacuating citizens. "It's a massive effort and it's very expensive," he said.

The U.S. effort to repatriate American citizens from Wuhan and from the Diamond Princess cruise ship last month were followed by coordination challenges, he pointed out, as communities stateside pushed back against underdeveloped quarantine plans.

Dalieh has come to terms with her situation and feels safer staying inside, but does feel claustrophobic at times after weeks on end in her dorm. "It's like you're suffocating, you know?" she said.

She occasionally meets with peers inside her building to study together and spends her free time trying to calm the fears of her family back home, including her five-year-old daughter. "There's nothing I can do about it, so I just have to adjust to whatever comes my way," she said.

Barbara Nuwagira, 25, a journalism and communications postgraduate student from Uganda, said her embassy has told students financial challenges are a reason for not pulling them out of the city. "They said they cannot afford that," she said via WeChat.

Barbara Nuwagira, a Ugandan student in Wuhan.

Chartering planes for evacuation from Wuhan is difficult because airlines have stopped flying to the city, Ugandan Health Minister Jane Aceng said in a parliament meeting last month.

Aceng also said the government was already paying for quarantine facilities to monitor suspected cases and argued it was better for the 105 Ugandan students to stay in China. "It is safer to keep the persons in Wuhan city there," she said.

Stranded Ugandan students will instead get payments from the government, but Nuwagira said she hasn't received any yet. "We are still waiting for it."

Nuwagira began her degree at Wuhan University in the fall and wasn't planning to return home until after she graduated. Watching her peers leave the city while she has to stay behind is disheartening — she cried the day her Russian and Australian roommates were evacuated. "Now I feel I miss home because of this that I have gone through," she said.

Both the Liberian and the Ugandan embassies in China have not responded to requests for comment from NBC News. The Pakistani Embassy also declined to comment.

China has backed countries, including Pakistan, who've decided to not evacuate students from Wuhan, and thanked them for having faith in the country's ability to overcome the virus.

Diplomats from Pakistan's Embassy in Beijing visited Wuhan with special permission from the Chinese Foreign Ministry to meet with the students, local officials and university administrators, according to Pakistan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

But their efforts have done little to quell their fears, Sandhu, Tayyab's uncle, said. Some students are reluctant to complain so to not seem critical of their university during a difficult time for the Chinese people.

Family members of Pakistani students studying in Wuhan, China, rally outside the Chinese Consulate in Lahore, Pakistan, on Feb. 13, 2020, for the evacuation of their children after the Chinese city was badly hit by the coronavirus. K.M. Chaudary / AP

One student Sandhu spoke with said she was afraid to seek medical help for a health problem unrelated to the virus because she was worried about having problems with her university. "I just want to have the degree," he recalls her saying.

Those living at the dorms in her university are allowed windows of time to go shopping at the campus market but otherwise do not go outside. Students at other universities said their meals are delivered directly to their dormitory buildings.

"Most of the time we hide our feelings because we don't want to hurt our parents," Tayyab said, referring to her low mood caused by staying inside for weeks on end.

Now that classes have started online, students are keeping busy but Tayyab said they are still feeling the toll from their extended time under campus lockdown.

"It's really very difficult to stay in isolation."