Life at the epicentre: Batswana speak from Wuhan

 Ghost town: At least five million people have been evacuated from Wuhan  PIC: BUSINESSINSIDER.COM
Ghost town: At least five million people have been evacuated from Wuhan PIC: BUSINESSINSIDER.COM

Today, Friday, marks the 43rd day of lockdown for 25 Batswana stuck in the Chinese city of Wuhan, the epicentre of the deadly coronavirus outbreak. A representative of the group tells Staff Writer, MBONGENI MGUNI, that some have experienced panic attacks and others are drifting into depression

“It’s emotionally draining. It’s tough. You cannot go out. It’s just the same four walls, seeing these everyday with nothing new.

“We have had guys experience panic attacks and we believe others are going into depression.”

Mmilili Santu is the spokesperson of an interim committee the group of 25 Batswana has set up in Wuhan. The group acts as a unified voice to air concerns and issues to Chinese authorities, the Botswana Embassy in Beijing and the government back home.

The concerns and issues are plenty, but the most prominent one, the one most frequently repeated and the one at the top of the agenda is the plea for evacuation.

Since January 23, 2020, Wuhan has been in lockdown, with its residents not allowed to so much as leave their homes. A resident may leave his apartment to collect a delivery such as food, from the few shops still operating, but must wear a mask or risk arrest in a city where masks are running out.

The city, described in travel guides as a sprawling metropolis of 11 million residents, is the epicentre of the coronavirus, the global epidemic, which by Thursday had killed 3,300 people across the world, with more than 96,000 confirmed cases.

By Thursday, China accounted for 3,000 of the coronavirus deaths and Wuhan, where Santu has been working for two years, accounted for 2,305 of these deaths.

“Where I’m working, there’s one person who contracted the virus and in our neighbourhood community we had one case as well,” he said by phone from Wuhan early Thursday morning.

“The neighbouring communities, however, have had many cases of the virus, so we are quite fortunate I think.”

Several countries have evacuated their nationals from Wuhan and broader China, but for Santu and his fellow countrymen, the wait continues. The Ministry of Health and Wellness recently made statements widely interpreted as hinting at evacuation but to date, no concrete action has been announced.

Most of the 25 Batswana in Wuhan are students located in hostels associated with one university or the other. Santu, on the other hand, works in Wuhan and lives with his wife, the only foreigners in their neighbourhood community. The couple is removed from the companionship of fellow Batswana.

Santu recalls how the lockdown intensified from initially being ‘external’, which stopped public transport systems and flights, but still allowed residents to move around the city by foot or bicycles.

As the cases and deaths grew, Chinese authorities tightened the lockdown.

“They introduced the ‘internal’ lockdown where they shut everything down, where we could not go out and this has been the case for several weeks.

“Nearly all the shops are closed and the few operating you can only purchase from them online.

“Prices are rising at these shops because they are few and they charge an additional delivery fee.”

Regularly, the food delivery arrives and Santu puts on his mask and goes out to collect.

“Gloves are finished, which means you take a risk every time you go out and collect the delivery. You don’t know what surfaces have picked up what.

“Often we wear plastic bags around our hands just to be safe.

“The masks we were given are still there because we spend all the time in the house and don’t use them as much. Sometimes I may use the same one a couple of times to make sure the little we have last.

“Going out without a mask is illegal, but with gloves you are only advised to wear them. It’s just a recommendation.”

The concept of time is slowly losing meaning for Batswana stuck in Wuhan. When you spend your days confined in the same environment, with no visitors, new sights, the surreal experience begins to erode the concept of time and routine.

In fact, Santu says he does not have a routine and does not keep track of time. His days consist of meetings of the interim committee via the WeChat app, discussing issues affecting Batswana, then it’s time to make breakfast.

“We usually bake bread and sometimes have oats. We then read books and watch TV to push time. Even though we don’t go to work physically, there are some tasks we are required to do and this may take two or three hours in a particular day.

“Then later make lunch and dinner at the same time, clean the house and maybe exercise.”

Most of Santu’s time, in fact, is spent communicating with the Botswana Embassy in Beijing attending to student issues such as expired visas, passports and most recently, coordinating the P1,600 allowances government sent to each student as a living stipend.

It is in these communications that the issue uppermost in the minds of Batswana in Wuhan frequently comes up: evacuation.

The interim committee has raised and repeated the issue in all of its communications with the Embassy as well as the ministries of health, foreign affairs and Office of the President. Batswana in Wuhan have also prioritised the issue in all their public statements sent back home.

“This is really frustrating,” Santu says.

“We never receive any reply except from the Embassy.

“From the ministries, we have never received even a note to say our emails were received. This is what we are dealing with.

“We don’t know if they have seen our emails or if they have any intention of evacuating us.

“It’s expensive to make phone calls to the ministries back home, but when we do, we are constantly sent around with people denying they are responsible for the matter, until you give up.”

Another factor depressing the citizen community is the cycle of hope and despair. Frequently, Chinese authorities signal that they may lift the lockdown and that the outbreak is easing, then quickly U-turn.

“I would say, however, the Chinese have done fair enough in taking care of Batswana here, considering that we are foreigners and we cannot expect them to put us ahead of their own people.

“They have started providing students with food, although it is Chinese food, which is far from what they are used to. They have also provided masks and other provisions.”

Batswana in Wuhan are hoping government accedes to their requests and brings them home. The sense of isolation is worsened by South Africa’s recent decision to evacuate its own citizens from Wuhan. Batswana in the city are watching their neighbours, some of whom they know personally, pack and prepare to return.

“No one knows when the lockdown will end,” says Santu.

“We want Batswana to know that none of their fellow citizens in Wuhan have been infected with the virus.

“We saw the reports where some people were saying we should not be evacuated in case we come and infect people back home.

“Other countries have made sure they test their citizens before evacuation and put them in quarantine for up to two weeks upon their return.

“Batswana must know that we don’t have the disease, but we can be tested and put in quarantine when we return.”

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