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50 Malawians trapped in coronavirus ground zero

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Joshua Malango

As countries such as the United States, Japan and the United Kingdom are evacuating their citizens from Wuhan, the Chinese city that is the epicentre of the, some 50 Malawians there feel trapped, want to get out and say they are running out of cash and supplies.

When the coronavirus begun to look serious, Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province in central China, announced a lockdown: Roads were closed, flights grounded, trains cancelled and public places cordoned off in a bid to prevent the spread of the ‘viral’ virus.

The lockdown left 11 million Wuhan residents, including 51 Malawians, in limbo.

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When the whole Hubei was locked down, this included seven Malawians in Yichang city and one in Xianning city.

Hubei has 58.5 million people.

“We are out of food,” was the most common response the students gave when asked what was their most urgent need.

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The students were commenting on questions by the reporter in the ‘Malawians in China’ group on the Chinese social networking app Wechat. Their names were not requested but their authenticity was verified.

Another student said: “We have been on lockdown for eight days now. Shops are closed as you might have heard. They are only opening specific ones at specific points and times, mostly for 2-3 hrs. Going there is a personal risk as no one knows who has been exposed to what and where. Prices of commodities have gone up than usual, and it is a hustle to actually buy what you need as the demand is high.”

With 132 deaths and 6,000 confirmed cases and the outbreak spreading to 16 countries, the lockdowns might not end soon and that is worrying the students.

“The [Malawian] government could top up every student currently in China with some little cash, especially now that our stipends won’t take us far… our purchasing power has been compromised,” said another student.

Bachelor’s degree student on scholarship in China get 2,500 Yuan (K265,000) per month in allowance.

While that seems a lot in Malawi, in China it can be very insignificant as students have to use it for food, electricity, internet, drinking water and in some cases, pay to shower.

Charles Namondwe, Malawi Ambassador to China, in a mobile phone interview yesterday, dismissed the students’ call to be evacuated saying those who wanted to leave Wuhan would have to do so in their own capacity.

Namondwe said Chinese authorities are in constant contact with him and the message he had gotten was that ‘everyone needs to stay calm and confident’ that the issue would be resolved.

He did warn, however, that the issue would take time to go away.

Namondwe could not comment on the student’s request for a top-up on their allowance implicitly indicating that that was an issue his superiors in Malawi would be better placed to tackle.

“It is painful to just sit and wait, but that is what must be done. It pains me, it pains me that I cannot even go and see them,” he said.

Namondwe said there are 56 Malawian students and one army officer in Hubei, a version which differs slightly with the numbers the students have of themselves.

Malawi Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson, Rejoice Shumba, last evening insisted that they had not received such a report from the Embassy in China that some Malawians need help.

“If we did [receive] definitely we would be in a position to help. Our message to those wishing to travel to China is that they must follow the travel restrictions which the Chinese government has put in place because all this is for their own good. The Ministry of Health is also doing something about this,” Shumba said.

In earlier interviews, Ministry of Health spokesperson, Joshua Malango and his counterpart for the Ministry of Transport, James Chakwera, said Malawi had taken precautionary measures in view of the coronavirus outbreak in China.

Malango said: “While World Health Organisation [WHO] has not yet declared the outbreak in affected countries as Public Health Emergency of International Concern and does not recommend any restriction of travel and trade, the Ministry of Health and Population is advising the general public to as much as possible avoid travelling to affected countries for as far as the outbreak is ongoing.

“People who recently travelled to affected countries are advised to report to their nearest health facility if they feel sick upon their return. No coronavirus has been reported in Africa including Malawi,” Malango said.

State-run CGTN reported that WHO Director-General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said evacuation of nationals from Wuhan were not recommended.

He instead, called for calmness saying he was confident in China’s response to the outbreak.

At 6,000 cases, the coronavirus has overtaken [in China] the 2003 Sars outbreak that also started in China and spread to 29 countries, including South Africa.

Sars infected 8,096 and killed 774 people. The virus that caused the Sars outbreak are closely related to the one that sparked the Wuhan coronavirus.

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