BEIJING – Hunkered down at the epicentre of China’s virus epidemic and cut off from the world, the remaining foreigners in Wuhan are eking out a life in fear.
A coronavirus outbreak that has killed more than 1,300 people and locked down the central Chinese city has left thousands of foreigners trapped as authorities impose an unprecedented quarantine.
“We want to go back. We can’t survive any more,” said Gaurab Pokhrel, a Nepali doctoral student in Wuhan and one of 200 from his country yet to be evacuated.
He said food was in short supply and foreign students were competing with locals at the few stores that were open.
As of Monday, 27 foreigners in China had been infected with the virus — 22 of whom were in quarantine, officials said. Two of those have died — an American and a Japanese man.
While many have managed to escape on government chartered planes, a dwindling group of the unlucky — or in some cases hardy — remain, either adapting to life or still seeking a way out.
They told AFP of their plight via phone, email, text messages and social media.
Ruqia Shaikh, a Pakistani postdoctoral researcher stranded at Wuhan’s Zhongnan University of Economics and Law, said most students at the school were confined to their dormitories, watching TV.
She said the university was providing students with essential commodities, but at double the usual price.
“We are fed up of eating the same food — boiled rice and vegetables — over and over again. The only physical activity we have is a walk on the terrace, and that exposes us to the risk,” Shaikh said.
“Last week I went to Walmart. It was the first time I had gone out in weeks. It was scary […] Since I came back I have been counting the days until I was very sure I didn’t have any virus.”
No plans for evacuation
She added that while many Pakistani students wanted to leave, there were risks in returning to the country.
“We are worried about how the authorities are going to treat us when we go back to Pakistan — some students who went back told us the officials treated them very badly,” she said.
Authorities say more than 500 students from Pakistan are in Wuhan, but they have not announced any plans for an evacuation effort.
Unlike many countries, Islamabad has maintained flights to and from other cities in China. The health ministry justifies the move with assurances that all passengers are screened on landing in Pakistan.
Yemen too has no plans to evacuate its 115 nationals from the virus-hit city.
Fahd Al Tawili, a 31-year-old Yemeni under quarantine at the China University of Geosciences, said conditions were desperate.
“Everybody’s being evacuated except us. The latest are the Sudanese,” he said.
“When we are allowed to go out, the few shops open are crowded and we have to wait in line for a long time to make rare purchases.” He said Yemen’s government had turned a deaf ear to requests to leave, and financial aid promised to scholarship holders had not been sent.
Another Yemeni student, a 23-year-old studying at Huazhong University of Science and Technology, said students were living in “total terror for fear of being infected”.
Bangladesh last week evacuated 312 people, mostly students, and planned a second flight for another 171 until pilots for national carrier Biman refused to fly for fear of catching the virus.
“No crew wants to go there. The crew who went there earlier don’t want to go either,” Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen told reporters on Saturday.
He said the government was trying to charter a Chinese-run flight, but so far without success.
France has left a group of between 30 and 50 citizens in Wuhan after evacuating hundreds on three earlier flights.
Its consul general in the city, Olivier Guyonvarch, said some want to leave, but Paris has no plans to send another plane.
“We have no way to get you out,” Guyonvarch says he told them.
Others are choosing to stay the course to minimise the risk of contracting the virus on the road.
Australian Edwin Reese said his wife was in the city and he was reluctant for her to leave.
“If she stays where she is, they have a small garden with fruit and vegetables […] they have everything they need,” he said.
“Why would they go out and expose themselves? They would be crazy to do that.”
Virus cases spike as China changes diagnosis method
China on Thursday reported a sharp spike in deaths and infections from a new virus after the hardest-hit province of Hubei applied a new classification system that broadens the scope of diagnoses for the outbreak, which has spread to more than 20 countries.
Japan reported its first death, a woman in her 80s who had been hospitalised since early February. She is the third confirmed fatality outside of China, after deaths in the Philippines and Hong Kong.
The new diagnostic approach came on the same day that Hubei and its stricken capital, Wuhan, replaced their top officials in an apparent response to public criticism of how authorities have handled the epidemic.
The death toll in China reached 1,367, up 254 from the previous day. The number of confirmed cases jumped 15,152 to 59,804. The unusually large increases were due to the change in Hubei’s approach.
The total now includes more than 13,000 cases of clinical diagnosis in Hubei, which appears to include those based on a doctors’ analysis combined with lung imaging, as opposed to waiting for laboratory test results.
In breaking down the large number of new cases in China, National Health Commission spokesman Mi Feng said Hubei had adopted a revised diagnosis and treatment plan aimed at accelerating the identification and treatment of patients.
That adds a “clinical diagnosis case” classification to identify suspected cases who appear to have pneumonia so that patients can be accepted as soon as possible and treated as confirmed cases, Mi said, adding that should reduce severe illness and mortality.
One expert said the changed case definition in Hubei likely speaks to the crush of patients the health system is experiencing and the backlog of untested samples.
“Clearly in Wuhan, the health system is under extreme pressure and so the first priority has to be the patient,” said Mark Woolhouse, a professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh.
He said it wasn’t unprecedented for case definitions to rely on doctors diagnoses rather than wait for laboratory confirmation, and that these kinds of changes usually happen when there are simply too many patients to process in a fast-moving outbreak.
“I’m not surprised that this has happened given the way the outbreak has been going in China, Woolhouse said. You have to be pragmatic and take the concerns of the patient first and treat them as if they already have the disease, even in the absence of lab confirmation.”
China also appointed new high-level officials in Hubei and Wuhan.
Former Shanghai mayor Ying Yong succeeded Jiang Chaoliang as the ruling Communist Party chief in the beleaguered province, the Xinhua state news agency reported, while Wang Zhonglin took over from Ma Guoqiang as the party secretary in Wuhan.
The appointments follow the sacking earlier this week of two leaders of the provincial health commission. State media also reported that a slew of others were expelled from the party for transgressions related to the epidemic.
The public has widely criticised local officials for failing to respond quickly and decisively to the new virus. Authorities initially assured people that there was little to no risk of human-to-human transmission, a statement that was later retracted. Wuhan residents said hospitals were overcrowded and lacked sufficient medical supplies. Doctors who tried to share information early on were reprimanded by police for spreading rumours.
Ship docks in Cambodia
Another cruise ship, the Westerdam, finally docked on Thursday in Cambodia after being turned away by several Asian and Pacific governments. No cases of the viral illness have been confirmed among its 1,455 passengers and 802 crew members, according to operator Holland America Line.
Thailand refused to allow the Westerdam to dock this week after it had already been turned away by the Philippines, Taiwan, Japan and Guam over virus concerns.
The Westerdam began its cruise in Singapore last month and its last stop before it was refused further landings was in Hong Kong, where 51 cases of the viral disease have been confirmed.