“Terrifying” is how many of the 148 evacuees, housed at a quarantine facility in Manesar for the last two weeks, described their experience in coronavirus-hit Wuhan in the days leading up to their departure. Many said that even as they were landing in India on February 1-2, they couldn’t stop thinking of several of their friends of other nationalities, who remained trapped in Wuhan, hoping to be “rescued” by their own governments.
Murmurs of a virus, many said, started surfacing in November last year. But it was only in January that they realised the gravity of the situation.
“Initially, the Chinese government tried to downplay the infection… When the symptoms finally became difficult to ignore, the situation deteriorated massively,” said a student from Wuhan.
“Around New Year, we found out how serious things were. We had holidays then, so we had planned to travel, but suddenly all our tickets and hotel bookings were cancelled,” he added.
The evacuees, mostly students aged between 19 and 24, said the city went into lockdown on January 23. “We were all restricted to our rooms and homes. Even Embassy officials could not come in, so we had to communicate with them through other means,” said another student.
Between January 23 and 30, people were allowed to venture out of their homes only between 10 am and 5 pm. Between 6 pm and 9 pm, everyone was asked to keep their doors and windows closed, since “they used to do some kind of chemical fumigation”. Food shortage, they said, was a constant concern.
Another student said, “There was no entertainment, nothing to keep people motivated, so the government would do things like telling people to sing the national anthem together. They would tell people that at 8 pm, you all have to sing the national anthem from your balconies.”
“Before us, the French and the Americans had left. The day we left, we saw many locals roaming around in parks without masks; it was as if they had surrendered to fate,” said a student. “We managed to escape, but there are still students of other nationalities who are stuck there.”
Even as students completed the formalities to return to India, Indian Army personnel were working towards setting up a facility for them in Manesar, chosen due to its distance from the main city, with fencing on the perimeter, allowing a “clear cut divide”.
Setting up the facility, divided into 14 barracks — 10 capable of housing 22 people each, and four housing eight people each — was a tough task that had to be completed in three days.
“We were told on the 27th, we had to set up this facility. News had, by then, also spread that people from Wuhan were coming here, so many civilians got scared. Some contractors for the food backed out; as did people hired for collecting biomedical waste,” said Major General Rashmi Dutta.
“The wiring also needed to be taken care of, and our Army personnel who were trained in this had to be deployed here because civilians had backed out.”
Although there were initial problems like bathrooms falling short and lack of hot water, evacuees The Indian Express spoke to maintained they were satisfied with the facility overall.
“Toilets here were not functional when we were allotted this task, so while we were fixing them, we got portable toilets for students. The ones available to us were those used for the Republic Day function, so we mobilised those and also asked for more… hot water was also available for more time within three-four days… some students got a little worried but we told them their complaints were being resolved,” said Major General Dutta.
In the two weeks the evacuees spent at the facility, regular conversations with their families and the food provided to them kept their spirits up. Both of these, officials said, were intentionally given special focus.
“We wanted to give them good food so they felt happy. Lots of variety was also given, because evacuees were from across the country. The aim was to ensure they were not stressed, which is why we allowed them to keep their phones,” said the Major General.
Although the evacuees were released on Tuesday, with buses being arranged to transport them to the railway station, airport or bus stop, officials said they have been issued an advisory on follow-up and care needed, and have been directed to alert officials if they experience any cough or cold in the next 14 days.
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