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Coronavirus in China: Indian students watch and wait in Wuhan — ‘Not a soul in sight’

Wuhan, in the central Chinese province of Hubei, is on lockdown. Transport restrictions have been strictly enforced, forcing many like Srikanth to remain within the four walls of their homes for the last five days.

Written by Sowmiya Ashok | New Delhi | Updated: January 27, 2020 7:54:32 am
Coronavirus, Coronavirus China, Coronavirus deaths, Indians in China, Wuhan, WeChat, China, Indian Express People wear masks following the outbreak of a new virus as people arrive from the International terminal at Toronto Pearson International Airport. (AP Photo)

With 4 kg potatoes, 2.5 kg onions, 1 kg carrots, rice, instant noodles and surgical masks, Srikanth (41), a scientist, is currently on “house arrest” in Wuhan.

While the death toll has risen to 56 across China, 2,008 confirmed cases, including 23 from abroad, have been reported so far, Chinese health authorities said on Sunday.

Wuhan, in the central Chinese province of Hubei, is on lockdown. Transport restrictions have been strictly enforced, forcing many like Srikanth to remain within the four walls of their homes for the last five days.

Read | Coronavirus outbreak in China: 80 dead, over 2,700 infected as virus spreads

It was in late December that Srikanth first saw murmurs of the virus on WeChat. “My Chinese colleagues were  discussing something that sounded like a flu. Winter is the season for flu, so at work we discussed the availability of flu vaccines,” he told The Indian Express via WeChat.

Srikanth works with a pharmaceutical company in Wuhan, and, coincidentally, researches the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome virus, caused by the MERS-coronavirus. “By January 7 or 8, when the outbreak was officially announced, I started taking extra precautions and sent across instructions to Chinese and Indian friends living in Hubei on how to be protected,” he said. “But nobody expected that it would spread this much.”

Also Read | Coronavirus outbreak in China: New Delhi on alert, looks at ‘travel options’ for Indians in virus zone

Worry over the rapid spread of the coronavirus, initially thought to have originated in animals but accelerated through human-to-human transmission, is reflected in discussions on the “Indians in Wuhan” WeChat group. To ease tensions, participants have also been sharing memes — like a video of a man shouting from his rooftop, “Aarey koi hain kya?”, in a deserted Wuhan city.

With news of the US Embassy working to evacuate its citizens from Wuhan, the Indians are appealing for urgent help. “There is a WeChat group set up by the Indian Embassy, where many people are expressing panic over the situation,” said a member of the group who did not want to be identified. “Evacuation plans are being discussed after informal news that countries such as the US, France and Iran are making arrangements for their citizens. There is talk of arranging private buses to move people out of Wuhan,” he said.

A resident of Saharanpur in Uttar Pradesh who now works for a vaccine company in Wuhan told The Indian Express about the difficulty of acquiring vegetables this past week. “I went to the supermarket, only to find long queues and vegetables completely out of stock. The next day, my Chinese friends warned me against going out. The situation is not good, only two state-owned supermarkets are open, and these are quite far,” he said.

He said his food supplies would last him a week. “At least I am healthy and safe, but the situation is very critical. If we get sick, neither the Chinese government will want us nor the Indian government,” he said.

With Wuhan being a hub for medical research and biological sciences, among its flourishing student community are many Indians — all now confined to their dormitory rooms and forced into a panic-stricken environment. While some universities are providing crackers, cookies and dry items, a student told The Indian Express that his university had withheld passports to prevent them from leaving the campus.

“We don’t want to suffer here. I want to go home, even if I am kept under observation there, I’d like to be in India rather than here,” said a student from Karnataka at Tongji Medical University.

Some students are trying to hire private vehicles, even willing to pay exorbitant rates, as a way out of Wuhan. However, drivers are unwilling to ferry passengers.

“We wanted to go out and find some food, but we are under a lockdown in our dormitory rooms,” said a medical student from Haryana at Jianghan University. “We have no schedule, our sleep is filled with tension, and we keep browsing the internet or discussing ways to get out of here and go home. Our parents keep calling us for updates too,” he said.

Chinese universities have been circulating notes on precautionary measures in student WeChat groups: “Don’t go out to eat, if necessary, you can go to the school canteen. Take good precautions and wear a mask when going out.”

Srikanth said the situation is worsening by the day. “There is not a soul in sight,” he said.

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