Coronavirus: Frustration mounts among foreigners stranded in Hubei amid outbreak

Medical workers in protective suits attending to patients at the Wuhan International Conference and Exhibition Centre, which has been converted into a makeshift hospital to receive patients infected by the novel coronavirus, in Wuhan, China, on Feb 5
Medical workers in protective suits attending to patients at the Wuhan International Conference and Exhibition Centre, which has been converted into a makeshift hospital to receive patients infected by the novel coronavirus, in Wuhan, China, on Feb 5, 2020.PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING - Life has turned topsy-turvy for Pakistani medical student Zulkaif Ali, who now spends most of his days in bed.

The 20-year-old wakes up at 9pm each day, speaks to his family in a video call, and has a simple meal with friends, who then spend most of the night playing mobile phone games, going to bed at dawn.

"Most of us gather in someone's room for the whole night, about 10 of us, where we play games together. It's the only way to prevent depression," Mr Zulkaif said.

He is among foreigners whose governments have chosen not to evacuate its residents from Hubei province, and is growing ever more frustrated with what he calls a game of "diplomatic showmanship".

Various countries have mounted evacuations for residents stuck in the province, ground zero of a coronavirus epidemic.

But allies like Pakistan and Cambodia have said they will not extricate residents, in what is seen as a diplomatic favour to China.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen even went on a whistle-stop tour of Beijing, taking the extraordinary step of offering to visit Cambodian students in Wuhan. The Chinese authorities said they could not accommodate his request with the epidemic in full swing.

In tweets from a verified account, China's foreign ministry referred to both countries as "iron-clad friends".

"Deeply touched by Pakistanis all over the world. IRON-CLAD friends forever," tweeted the verified account of China's foreign ministry spokesman, accompanied by a video of well wishes from Pakistanis around the world.

It stands in stark contrast to multiple videos Mr Zulkaif and his friends have posted on social media.

In one three-minute clip uploaded to Facebook, they showed Indian students packing up to leave campus after New Delhi sent special Air India jets to take its stranded nationals out.

"Indian embassy evacuated their citizens from China, shame on you Pakistan," wrote the third-year student at the Hubei University of Science and Technology.

The video has been shared nearly 400 times. Other clips feature appeals in Urdu by other undergraduates - most of them medical students - calling on their government to rescue them from a city where they say food is scarce.

 
 

For Ghanaian Emmanuel Appiah, a postgraduate student at the Wuhan University of Technology, there's little to do but try to stay positive.

Since the authorities shut down the province in a bid to contain the spread of the virus, which originated in provincial capital Wuhan, universities have also placed their campuses on lockdown.

Mr Appiah, 25, said there are no plans by Ghana to get its citizens out. The World Health Organisation warned last month that the virus could overwhelm public health systems on the African continent, which so far has no confirmed infections.

"My mum needs me to reassure her that I'm fine," Mr Appiah said. "If I don't call her at least once a day, there will be trouble."

Most days are spent streaming comedies, exercising and trying to work on his research, he said.

Analysts say this is the human cost of diplomatic posturing for a domestic audience.

"China is under great pressure in world politics from the coronavirus outbreak and it is desperate to show solidarity from friendly countries," said Dr Lance Gore, a senior research fellow at Singapore's East Asian Institute.

Much of China's behaviour on the international stage reflects how it exercises power domestically, he said, adding that shoring up support for the ruling party has become "second nature" for Chinese officials.

To contain the diplomatic fallout from the outbreak, Beijing has to play to its domestic audience, said Professor Xu Guoqi from the University of Hong Kong.

"The actual handing of the coronavirus has been a public relations disaster for Beijing... so the messages that they're sending out now, it's for the Chinese themselves, not for the Americans or the rest of the world," he said.