‘Derring-do’ secures evacuation of Indian medical students

Details have emerged of the extraordinary risk and challenges Indian officials faced earlier this month to facilitate the evacuation from China of more than 640 Indian citizens, most of them medical students, after the outbreak of the coronavirus epidemic.

The medical students had been pursuing their degrees in China’s Hubei province – a magnet for foreign students after it began offering medical degrees taught in English just over a year ago.

The evacuation was not an easy task as the Indian embassy did not know how many of its citizens were in China – many were not registered with the embassy or consulates. The first task was to list and locate the hundreds of unregistered Indians, while at the same time negotiating and coordinating with the Chinese officials, India’s Ambassador to China Vikram Misri told the Press Trust of India news agency, describing the task as a “logistical nightmare”.

Indian diplomats had to travel to Wuhan by road through Changsha city in Hunan province despite travel bans and fears of the virus.

Evacuating people from a city under lockdown, where transportation was banned and the airport had closed, was a challenge but was achieved due to the “doggedness” of Indian officials, including embassy staff, and the cooperation of Chinese authorities, Misri said.

Because of the transport lockdown, permission had to be sought to operate a large number of buses and send them to some 40 locations to pick up the students and others to bring them to the airport which had been closed since 23 January.

In some areas, roads were dug up to prevent people’s movement and the entire operation to pick up the students had to be conducted from the control room in the embassy hundreds of miles away, Misri said.

Some 700 Indian students are registered at institutions in Wuhan. In addition to the students evacuated by the authorities, a large number of students had returned to India during early January, when the universities were shut for the Lunar New Year vacations, and were still in India when the lockdown was announced on 23 January.

However, many Indian students were stranded in Wuhan, the Chinese city that was the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak, with many of the evacuees saying they would return as soon as they are permitted.

Since early December, more than 76,000 cases of the virus or COVID-19 have been officially registered in China, and another 1,100 cases elsewhere in Asia, according to figures up to 20 February. The virus has caused more than 2,100 deaths in China including the death on 18 February of the director of Wuchang Hospital in Wuhan, Liu Zhiming, a neurosurgeon.

Only three Indian students evacuated from Wuhan tested positive for the virus – all of them from India’s southern state of Kerala. They were studying medicine at Wuhan, Hubei province, the epicentre of the viral outbreak that was declared an international public health emergency by the World Health Organization on 30 January.

On 17 February about 400 of the Indian evacuees were allowed to leave the makeshift camp set up by the Indo-Tibetan Border Police after a two-week quarantine period, the majority of them students from different parts of India. However, with many universities in China extending their vacations because of the outbreak, students say they still do not know when they can return to continue their studies.

Among the students evacuated from Hubei province was Abdul Mateen, a medical student at Hubei University of Medicine in the city of Shiyan, who was flown to India from Wuhan on 2 February. “We were around 400 students. They kept us for 15 days [in quarantine in India] and then allowed us to go back to our homes.”

‘We were really scared’

Describing conditions in China after a lockdown was declared in Wuhan on 23 January, Mateen told University World News: “We stayed [indoors] for almost 10 days, after which we were evacuated from Hubei. We were not allowed to move out of our hostel and we were really scared about what would happen. However, the Indian embassy in China and the Indian government helped us in whatever way they could.”

Mateen, who is from Khargone in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, said Hubei University of Medicine has already started online classes.

“We were told that we may not return to China for another two months so we will be studying online. After that we expect to return,” he said.

It is unclear when universities will reopen in China. An official of India’s Ministry of Health, who is not authorised to speak to the media, said: “The coronavirus outbreak is a unique challenge and it could affect the careers of the students as they have already invested a lot of money and time.

“We’re keeping our fingers crossed. But we are sure the Chinese government and the university authorities will act in the best interest of the students as they did to facilitate their evacuation from Wuhan. But right now their priority [in China] is naturally to control the epidemic while the death toll continues to mount,” he added.

The students, along with other evacuees, were screened at the airport in New Delhi after their arrival and then sent to two quarantine facilities set up by the Indian Ministry of Health, one just outside Delhi run by the Indo-Tibetan Border Police and another at Manesar in Haryana managed by India’s Armed Forces Medical Services.

Affordable medical degrees

The dramatic account of the evacuation has turned the spotlight on Indian students studying medicine in China. Educational experts say Indian students go to China for medical studies because the quality of education is quite satisfactory and they provide all the facilities including food and boarding at a reasonable price.

Mateen said: “The fees in India are much higher. The minimum fees in a private medical college in India for a MBBS course must be around INR4 million [US$55,600], but in China we can complete the course for INR2.5 million [US$34,700].”

Infrastructure in China’s medical schools is much better than India, Mateen added. “But the important thing is selection.”

With many Indian students failing to pass India’s competitive National Eligibility cum Entrance Test or NEET required for admission to government medical colleges in India, “studying in China is a good option for them”, Mateen said.

India’s sought-after government medical colleges require a score of nearly 600 out of 720 marks in the NEET, while Chinese colleges will accept scores of 400 or even less.

Shubham Gupta, another Indian student evacuated from Hubei, told University World News: “Even though we have worked hard here [in India], we failed to get selected via NEET. Finally, we went to China where education is affordable.”

He said: “We received a lot of support from the government. They have helped in every way to bring us from China.”

Indian students mainly studying medicine

According to the official data of the Ministry of Human Resource Development, as of 2019, 23,000 Indian students are studying in China and, of these, 21,000 are pursuing medicine. The remaining students are enrolled in engineering and language studies.

China’s MBBS degree is valid in India and the Medical Council of India (MCI) recognises around 45 Chinese medical colleges – all of them offering medical degrees taught in English – but graduates from China must pass a screening test to practise in India.

MCI-recognised Chinese institutions offer a total of 3,370 seats to international students – the majority of them taken up by Indian students. Indian students are also enrolled in non-MCI recognised medical colleges offering bilingual degrees.

According to the Health Ministry, those who have completed internships in China as part of the MBBS course in that country are eligible for registration to practise medicine in India but only after they clear the Foreign Medical Graduates Examination or FMGE, the screening test for foreign medical graduates.

Wuhan attracted Indian medical students in large numbers after it started offering medical courses in English, which gives Indian students a better chance of cracking the FMGE.

While the number of Indian medical students heading to China is rising every year, fewer than 12% of Indian students who graduated from Chinese medical universities – which mainly teach in Chinese – passed India’s FMGE in the past three years.