KINGSLEY KASWENDE and JOANNE ZULU, Lusaka
AS CHINESE authorities battle to contain the deadly coronavirus disease outbreak – now called COVID-19 – strictest measures have been instituted, with the hardest-hit cities placed under lockdown for close to 50 days now.
Globally, the outbreak has so far claimed 3,381 lives and infected 97,993 people in 87 countries, with China alone recording a whopping 80,710 cases according to World Health Organisation (WHO) statistics as of Friday 11:00 hours. The statistics are updated constantly.
The disease broke out at the turn of the year in Wuhan, the sprawling capital of China’s north-western Hubei Province.
The entire city of over 11 million inhabitants has since been quarantined, with no movements allowed in and out of the city. A few other cities have been placed under quarantine, too.
There are around 3,200 Zambian students in China, but 210 have been trapped in quarantine, as they live in Wuhan and Shiyan, the hardest-hit cities in Hubei Province. Hubei Province alone has so far recorded over 67,000 cases.
The stringent quarantine measures seem to have slowed down the virulent disease, but have not been without terrible physical and emotional toll on the Zambian students.
“…as days go by, living in confinement feels like (living in) a luxury prison I would say. I have been under quarantine for 43 days now personally and it is really physically and emotionally draining,” says Tisiliyani Salima, a medical student at Huazhong University of Science and Technology.
Salima is also the president the Zambian-Wuhan student association and has lived in China for over five years.
No Zambian student has been taken in ill so far, but many are living in fear, having been “trapped” in the disease epicentre.
“It’s a little draining to stay indoors all day. You don’t get to run errands that you need as easily as you can. Shopping online hasn’t been easy, so that also affects me emotionally,” says Elizabeth Nambao, an international trade and economics student at Hangzhou Normal University.
She is due to graduate in June, 2020.
Some students have reported loss of weight as they cannot stand monotonous diets for weeks on end. Their universities provide them with food to keep going, but few can stomach the same kind of food for weeks.
“The situation is physically challenging, I can’t eat like I used to so I’ve experienced loss of weight. Emotionally, I feel lonely and scared,” says one mechanical engineering student, who prefers anonymity for fear of unsettling his family.
The student says the situation is dire in the hardest hit areas. People have been ordered to remain indoors and no unnecessary movements are allowed.
“Whole cities are under lockdown and fewer people are getting infected everyday so that’s a good sign, but challenges such as getting food, accessing funds to get the food, being confined to one place may affect your mental status,” the mechanical engineering student says.
Prices of food and other goods have gone up as a result of most manufacturing entities operating at the barest minimum.
“As a student living on campus, you are not allowed to leave the campus area. Equally those living off campus are not allowed to leave the estate unless they have a card which serves as a pass. And you can use this card only twice a week,” says Fortune Chavula, who recently graduated with a bachelor’s degree in aeronautical engineering from Shenyang Aerospace University in Shenyang/ North-East China.
Chavula has been in China for over four years.
The penalties for breaking the imposed restrictive measures are severe, including lone isolation for weeks and even expulsion from school, and authorities are taking these measures with utmost seriousness.
“My school has put up measures such as daily health attendance reports including temperature checks, check in when leaving and entering our dormitory, allowing exit and entry through only one door for all three international students’ dormitories. Failure to comply with the rules will result in loss of scholarships or expulsion,” says Elizabeth Nambao.
As a result of the strict measures, the students keep indoors sticking to the wake-eat-sleep routine. Some universities are offering online lessons for a few hours, and students have to keep themselves busy within confinement for the rest of the day.
“I do whatever if I feel I have to do to keep myself sane, because being indoors for a long time alone can drive you a little insane,” says Nimrody Simfukwe, a second-year student of civil engineering.
“We are not allowed to be in crowded places which has made us not to visit friends. The most important thing is the issue of masks. We need to be in a mask at all times every day. Not going outside for one month and some weeks has been hard.”
The Zambian embassy in China, through the Association of Zambian Students in China (AZSIC), has tried to help the students with masks and extra funds, as the cost of living has gone up. Most students received US$150 each, although others are yet to receive the handout. The mission also sends survey links to monitor how Zambian students are doing especially in the most-affected cities.
While in quarantine, many students have access to medical facilities.
Authorities have set up hotlines and applications that students sign into everyday to report their daily symptoms, body temperature and any other health difficulties they face.
However, attention is only paid to those showing signs of coronavirus infection to the exclusion of many other conditions, except for emergency situations.
Whilst some Zambian students have requested that they be evacuated from China, it is unlikely that will happen soon, as Chinese authorities won’t allow movements of people in and out of the epicentres.
Other students believe that evacuation is not an option at the moment but that the government should instead render medical and financial assistance to them.
“We need all the help we can get, especially monetary assistance while we are here in China. Evacuation is not the solution now because China won’t allow anyone to move any person from Wuhan to another place in china. And flying back to Zambia is even riskier,” says Fortune Chavula.
The materials they need most, which are hard to come by, are gloves, masks, medical supplies and food.
The students hope that the Zambian government has put strict measures in place not to allow the disease into the country.
“So it’s time to pull up our socks and put up some strong preventive measures for people getting into Zambia,” Chavula advises.
KINGSLEY KASWENDE and JOANNE ZULU, Lusaka