Coronavirus – MPs order rescue plan for students in China

The Ugandan government is to come up with a multi-sectoral plan involving the ministries of health, education and foreign affairs to ensure that Ugandan students affected by the coronavirus lockdown in Wuhan in China are assisted, but an outright evacuation plan is not yet on the cards.

Frustrated by reports of Ugandan students trapped in Chinese universities with no evacuation plan, members of parliament earlier this week (on 11 February) tasked the government to come up with a viable rescue plan that might involve other countries from East Africa.

Chief Whip Ruth Nankabirwa said the cabinet tasked the health minister and Uganda’s ambassador to China to ensure that Ugandan students get the help they need.

“We are still weighing up the issue of evacuating them or sending logistics to help them where they are quarantined. We don’t want our children to continue suffering but we have to work with the government of China,” Nankabirwa said.

Students appeal to government

Parliamentarians raised the rescue plan after five Ugandan students trapped in Wuhan in China, the city where the coronavirus originated, sent a letter to parliament appealing to the Ugandan government to use its diplomatic powers and engage with the Chinese government to allow for a timely evacuation.

Latif Sebaggala, MP for Kawempe South, said he had received many messages from students, most of them complaining about a lack of general necessities, including protective masks and groceries.

“If other countries have evacuated their citizens, why can’t Uganda do so? We just need to ensure that they are quarantined when they return,” said Sebaggala.

Thomas Kanzira, a 25-year-old Ugandan medical student at Jianghan University in Wuhan, has been talking to different media about his fears and the problem of food scarcity and sky-rocketing prices.

“If the virus does not kill us, then hunger will. We are depressed and beyond frustrated; we need to be evacuated from here before things escalate,” Kanzira was quoted as saying.

The appeal has found resonance among some MPs. “This is not a matter that any of them [the students] could have foreseen. We need to get them safe passage and assess them for two weeks. Thailand has done it, Nigeria has done it, and the Senegalese have done it,” said Muhammad Nsereko, MP for Kampala Central Division.

Rebecca Kadaga, speaker of parliament, directed Prime Minister Dr Ruhakana Rugunda to provide a government strategy to help Ugandans in China, which should include immediate and ultimate interventions.

“The situation is really bad, there is no food, the banks are closed, and there is no transport. They are going to starve. You should support all the children in universities with basics,” said Kadaga.

Uganda currently has about 70 students in Wuhan universities, according to press reports, and it also has close ties with China. The World Health Organization (WHO) has assessed 2019-nCoV as a high risk for the African region, although there are as yet no confirmed cases of novel coronavirus in Africa. WHO has identified 13 countries in Africa, Uganda among them, which need to be vigilant due to their direct links and high volume of travel to China.

East Africa evacuation

MP Jack Wamanga-Wamai urged East African countries to work together to expatriate students. Media reports indicate that Algeria chartered a plane to bring its nationals home, as well as those from regional neighbours including Libya, Mauritania and Tunisia. Other African countries that have evacuated their nationals include Morocco, Ethiopia and Egypt.

“Uganda does not have a long-range aircraft, but Kenya does. The mission in Beijing cannot do anything. These are government students and the government is responsible for them when they are abroad,” said Wamanga-Wamai.

Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta has said the country will charter a Kenya Airways plane to bring home over 200 Kenyan students in Wuhan.

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, after an earlier meeting with the Chinese ambassador to Uganda Zheng Zhu Qiang, expressed his confidence that the Chinese government was keeping Ugandans in China safe.

However, Paul Mwiru, MP for Jinja Municipality East, said the government should not be influenced by China in its decision to evacuate.

“We are taking this as a matter of urgency for the safety of the students and the safety of the 42 million Ugandans,” Nankabirwa told parliament.