Distressed students stuck in China appeal for help

At least 350 Zimbabwean students are reportedly stuck in Wuhan, China, which has been identified as the epicentre of the coronavirus, with many of them having taken to social media platforms such as Facebook to plead for assistance amid food shortages and mental distress.

Students based in Wuhan and nearby cities told University World News via WhatsApp that they have been confined to their dormitories or apartments for close to a month, since the lockdown which was initiated by the Chinese government to curb the spread of COVID-19.

Learners from different universities, including Hubei Normal University and Wuhan University of Technology, have formed social groups to mobilise funds and acquire psycho-social support from psychologists. Although aware of the difficulties faced by students, the Zimbabwean embassy in China has been unable to provide financial assistance as the country is facing economic challenges, with foreign currency shortages and millions of people reported to be “food insecure”.

In a public plea on Facebook, the head of a student group in Wuhan, Tatenda Chingaira, said they could no longer remain silent, and called for the government to work on a strategy for their evacuation and to ensure they get supplies to sustain them until the lockdown is lifted.


“We rely on part-time work to make ends meet but since we are now confined to our apartments and businesses have closed due to the virus, we have no choice but to go online and seek help,” said Nyasha Mukori, who is at Huazhong University of Science and Technology, during a WhatsApp interview with University World News.

Wuhan and other affected cities have been on lockdown since last month, with sources of transportation including airlines, trains and buses suspended. According to one of the student representatives, only two out of 12 universities have managed to provide basic supplies on a consistent basis, with most learners having to fend for themselves.

“We have been surviving on water and rice,” said one of the students at Wuchang University of Technology during a telephone interview.

Students living outside university dormitories are worse off than their counterparts in residence, and some have been going for days without a decent meal.

Natasha Mupandawana, a final-year student at Jianghan University, said via WhatsApp: “I really want to go home but we cannot travel because of the lockdown. Many of us are depressed because we do not know when the lockdown will end …. As it is, we are afraid that the virus might start to spread among us.”

Reluctance to evacuate

The Council on Foreign Relations reports that there are at least 5,000 African students studying in Wuhan alone, with many African governments reluctant to evacuate them amid fears of potential outbreaks in their countries.

Fears continue to grow that not only Zimbabwe but Africa would not be able to contain the coronavirus should an outbreak occur. According to a report in The Telegraph, Bill Gates said that many African healthcare systems could be overwhelmed by the virus and the impact would be “very dramatic”, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa.

In an emergency meeting held by African health ministers in Addis Ababa on 22 February, the African Union has called for a common approach focused on preparedness with regards to the repatriation of students from China.

Zimbabwe’s preparedness to deal with coronavirus is in doubt and the mass evacuation of students may pose challenges for a healthcare system that is already under strain as a result of recent doctors’ strikes, lack of medical equipment, medicines and recent cholera outbreaks.

The Senior Hospitals Doctors’ Association stated that Zimbabwe’s laboratories were not equipped to test for coronavirus and samples would need to go to South Africa, according to reports in NewsDay.

As the crisis continues to deepen in Wuhan, without a definite cure being found, the chances of evacuation for African students stuck in Wuhan continue to decrease.