COVID-19 – Kenya, Ghana and South Africa students stay putAlgeria and some of its North African neighbours, have moved to evacuate their citizens from the Chinese city of Wuhan, the epicentre of the deadly coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, students from other African regions remain trapped in universities with no immediate evacuation plans.
Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania have ruled out an outright evacuation plan for their students affected by the lockdown in Wuhan, heightening anger among frustrated students and their families.
Since the outbreak began in China, life has virtually come to a standstill. Universities and other tertiary institutions remain closed across the country and a travel ban has been imposed in Wuhan to limit exposure to the virus.
Elaborate measures are in place to ensure that there is no importation of COVID-19 into the region, officials say. So far, there has been no confirmed case in East Africa.
At least 90 Kenyan students are stranded in Wuhan.
Among them is Jeffrey Okundi. Speaking to Kenya’s Citizen TV from Wuhan, he said the students had been confined to their rooms and the long wait is causing them to suffer mental breakdowns. He appealed to his government to evacuate them.
“Being constrained in our small rooms is draining us,” Okundi said. “We can’t associate and we can’t move freely,” he said.
Patrick Webo, a parent whose daughter is among the Kenyan students in Wuhan, said their situation was agonising.
“Every time I speak to my daughter, she is in distress,” he told reporters in Nairobi.
Kenya’s Ambassador to China Sarah Serem said she sympathised with the plight of the students and appealed for calm.
“Our hearts go out to all the affected [students],” she said, adding that her diplomatic mission in Beijing was considering how to assist them in any appropriate ways.
Victor Onjolo, a Kenyan student who managed to leave Wuhan just before the lockdown on 23 January said messages from the Kenyan government over possible evacuation of students had been confusing.
“It’s total confusion; at some point we heard there were plans to get the students evacuated, then suddenly they got word to ‘stay there’,” said Victor Onjolo, a Kenyan masters student at Wuhan Botanical Garden.
Onjolo, who is studying a master of science degree in plant genetics at a Chinese higher education institution, said he escaped the lockdown by a whisker.
“I was lucky to fly back home just hours before the Wuhan authorities declared the travel restrictions,” he said.
Kenyan government spokesman Colonel (Rtd) Cyrus Oguna told reporters in Nairobi on Thursday 20 February: “Through the Kenyan mission in Beijing we are in contact with the Kenyan students in Wuhan and have managed to secure medical services for those in need.”
He said all Kenyans in Wuhan were in good health and none of them has contracted the disease.
Tanzania and Uganda
In Tanzania, the authorities say they will not bring back some 420 students studying in China, citing health safety concerns.
According to the Citizen newspaper, Tanzanian officials have reassured parents and guardians that the learners stuck in the coronavirus-hit region “were safe” but remained in quarantine lockdown.
“Eruption of the viral infections have been reported in countries that rushed to evacuate their citizens immediately after the outbreak, leading to further spreading of the disease,” the newspaper reported, quoting a statement from Tanzanian officials.
Last week, University World News reported that Ugandan members of parliament tasked the government to come up with a viable rescue plan, and explore a regional response, for students trapped in Chinese universities.
Meanwhile, the Chinese ambassador to Ghana, Shi Ting Wang, has denied that Ghanaian students in Wuhan are suffering the lockdown without food, water and other essentials.
Reacting at a press conference to reports by some opposition lawmakers that the 151 Ghanaian students are facing dire conditions in China and should be evacuated, Wang said: “I cannot deny the fact that there are one or two cases, but to say that the students are starving, that cannot be true.”
He said the students were monitored on a daily basis by the Chinese authorities and the government has set up a 24-hour English language hotline so that if any of them feel unwell they can contact the local authority for an immediate response.
“I was told in the media that some of them are starving. We have requested … the contact [details] of the people said to be starving to make sure that they are attended to. But nobody gave us any. There may be one or two special cases, but that doesn’t represent the general number,” he said.
Earlier in his state of the nation address to parliament, Ghana's President Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo said the government has not ruled out evacuating the students from Wuhan if that becomes necessary.
“We have put in place measures to ensure that their evacuation back into Ghana, if it happens, does not lead to the dissemination of fear and panic amongst the general population,” he said, adding that “there is a sizeable Ghanaian community in China and our government, through our embassy, has been working with the Chinese authorities to find the best way to deal with the situation.
“We have a difficult and delicate situation on our hands, and it does not benefit anybody to try to score points by introducing ill-judged politics into this ongoing medical conundrum and humanitarian tragedy,” he said.
Since the crisis started, he said, the Chinese government has done its best to keep them supplied with food and other logistics, adding that, “we know that no amount of logistics will make up for the extreme stress and trauma that these young people are going through”.
According to the Ghanaian Minister of Foreign Affairs and Regional Integration Shirley Ayorkor Botchwey, her ministry granted approval for the Ghana mission in Beijing to expend CNY100,000 (US$14,200) to cater for supplies such as face masks, hand sanitisers and food in support of Ghanaians in Wuhan and its environs.
Botchwey said an additional US$50,000 and US$200,000 had been transferred to the Ghana mission for emergencies.
Meanwhile, in a media briefing on Tuesday, China's Ambassador to South Africa Lin Songtian said there had been no reported cases of South African nationals in China having contracted the coronavirus.
He said there were 3,000 South African students currently in China, 165 of whom lived in Hubei province.
Songtian said the Chinese government had put comprehensive and rigorous measures in place to fight the virus and prevent it from spreading.
The latest update from South Africa's National Institute for Communicable Diseases on 18 February said none of the 87 people tested in South Africa showed signs of the virus.
Last week, a Botswana masters student at the University of Delaware in the United States started a Change.org petition appealing to the African Union (AU) to evacuate all African students from Wuhan.
“The physical and emotional trauma of living in constant fear, suddenly having limited freedom and having to consider never seeing home again on a daily basis is also already taking a toll on these students. Leaving these young people hung out to dry is a betrayal of the Pan-African principles on which the AU was founded and a betrayal of the future of our continent,” the petition states.