South Asia

As Wuhan Coronavirus Spreads, Hubei's Indians Ride an Emotional Roller Coaster

People from India living in Hubei and expecting a ride home soon are already battling a lack of information, a food shortage and confusing messages from officials of the Indian embassy.

New Delhi: The wait is nearly over for the 500 Indians stuck in China’s central province of Hubei. By tonight, most of them are likely to be on a plane for the long ride back home, at the end of over a week of enforced isolation in their homes and dormitories in Wuhan and in nearby cities.

However, they won’t be able to head straight for home once they land; that will still be at least two weeks away, following two weeks of quarantine and observation in hospitals to make sure they did not contract the virus themselves.

Hubei is the epicentre of a new strain of coronavirus that emerged in the first week of December, dubbed 2019 nCoV. The World Health Organisation has declared its spread a “global health emergency”.

Sitting in their rooms and dormitories, Indians in cities the Chinese government shut down in an extreme attempt to contain the virus’s spread waited for news from the state-controlled media and scrolled endlessly through social media posts for whatever new information, and rumours, pertaining to the virus, navigating the indomitable Great Fire Wall.

The Indian embassy in Beijing did open a couple hotlines but a WeChat group founded on January 26 exclusively for Indians in Hubei province better reflected their anxieties and concerns.

As news trickled in of other countries flying their citizens out of Wuhan as well, questions poured in thick and fast, emotions began to rise, and frustration built up. Some students said their food supplies were running very low; a few expressed a general sense of unease and were worried about possible symptoms.

A snapshot from January 27 indicates a group member shared an article about 21 Sri Lankan students leaving for home from China, followed by a list of other countries taking similar action.

Another Indian wrote a long post in the group about the lack of adequate facilities at Indian airports to properly screen travellers coming from China. “I am healthy and left China on time,” the member wrote. (The Wire could not contact the person and is thus choosing to not identify them.)

But in an effort to be careful, he wrote that when he arrival in New Delhi, he volunteered for a check-up at the airport desk but was told that it wasn’t necessary. The reason: they were only checking people on direct flights from China, not those who had flown connecting flights through third countries.

Commenting that “no one is serious” about the potential crisis facing India, he speculated that some cases must have already gone undetected.

He may not have been completely wrong. The first confirmed case in India is of an Indian student from Wuhan, currently in a hospital in Kerala, who had left the Chinese city earlier. Scientists have also recently been able to confirm that the 2019 nCoV is capable of asymptomatic transmission – i.e. moving from one human body to the next without always manifesting outward signs of infection.

At the same time, Indian officials also announced continuously that preparations were underway for an evacuation; a consent form published on January 29 was an important giveaway. The form asked for its subject to agree to undergo 14 days’ mandatory quarantine on return and to forego any, but especially airborne, travel if medical checks found them unfit. All of them were also asked to keep masks and sanitisers with them at all times.

Around 7 pm local time on January 30 (9:15 pm IST), an embassy official leading the group announced that the first flight out could leave as early as Friday, January 31, evening – the first time the members of the WeChat group had a date to work with.

Some four hours later, after 11 pm, the embassy published a list of the names of 315 people the flights would evacuate. Most of them made it but some didn’t. They sent fervent requests to check: “Hi, I can’t find my name… I am from Wuhan, not listed now,” one member wrote. At the same time, a group of people who hadn’t asked to be shifted out of Wuhan found that their names had made it to the list, so they demanded they be left out.

A final list ultimately emerged around midnight, with 391 names. On Friday morning, the embassy published a list of 39 buses with 42 pick-up points tasked with transport Indians between 11 am and 3 pm to the Wuhan airport.

The names of Ashish Kumar Yadav, an associate professor at Wuhan Textile University who worked with lasers and photonics, and his wife Neha Yadav feature on the final pick-up list but they were still unsure about what they had to do. “I have called the embassy several times to ask whether to start packing. They [asked to] wait for information,” he told The Wire.

Indeed, Ashish said he was always conflicted by returning to India in such a troubled time. “We feel safer here – otherwise this disease will spread all over India and I’m sure that we can’t control the situation like China” will be able to, he said.

He and Neha stayed within the university campus and hadn’t ventured out since January 23. But on the afternoon of January 28, they decided to risk a brisk walk around the campus. “We had got tired of seeing only each other constantly…” However, when they did attempt to step out with their protective masks on, university security guards accosted them. “They were confused and thought that maybe we are lost,” Ashish said.

According to Ashish, academic institutions are usually empty in this time of the year because it’s around the Chinese new year – although the mood this time was obviously different. The next day, when the couple ventured out into the city itself, they found the wide roads eerily deserted but all the supermarkets well-stocked. When they returned, the guards told them they’d had been outside for far too long, and they were required to have their body temperatures checked before entering.

The news of an Indian student who had returned from Wuhan to Kerala and tested positive for a 2019 nCoV infection was also a source of anxiety. Ashish was aware of at least five students who were feeling unwell, with symptoms of a cold, and admitted he was apprehensive about travelling with them. “They were not reporting [themselves] as they didn’t want to get hospitalised,” he said.

On Friday morning, between calls about whether he and his wife could start preparing for the journey home, another source of confusion emerged: “Some students in my university have been told that their pickup will arrive at 1:30 pm. I haven’t got the call. That’s strange.” Then, in the afternoon, Ashish was removed from the WeChat group entirely and left with no way to get more information, and grew angry.

Update: As of 1:30 pm on January 31, the pick-up for at least one Indian in Hubei was yet to arrive. They had been informed that they would receive a confirmation call 15-20 minutes before. However, the bus – originally scheduled for 2:15 pm IST – finally showed up shortly after 3 pm IST.

An hour later, he’d made up his mind. “I have decided not to go back… The situation is under control now. I don’t want to go back on this flight. I have some doubts [about the] people [on the flight]… I don’t know.” He also mentioned his wife wasn’t feeling very well (though not for any reasons to do with the coronavirus).

Also read: Why India Should Worry About the New Coronavirus

Varshini Srinivas, a 23-year-old fifth-year medical student, wasn’t as brave as Ashish or Neha, and stayed in the whole time. “The only time that I [went] out [was] to [drop the trash]. I have just five months left… I don’t want to take the risk.”

Srinivas was among only a handful of Indian students still left behind at the university, after almost everyone had left home for the vacations, and was spending her time completing an internship. She didn’t have much reason to worried either because, according to her, the university authorities were on top of their game. “They were cleaning the floors and surroundings twice a day,” she told The Wire. “A couple days earlier, I had panicked and called the university about whether I [showed] the symptoms [of a 2019 nCoV infection]. They were very nice and walked me through everything, and told me not to worry.”

The only problem for her, as well as the others still around, was food. “We had been told by the university that supplies had reached the [university’s] super market. But when my friend went there, there wasn’t much left… just two tomatoes.”

Earlier, Srinivas and her peers had informed the Indian embassy of this problem but were simply told to approach the Chinese authorities.

At the time of her conversation with The Wire, she was confident about spending two weeks quarantined in India upon her return. “I want to go back but not to infect my family or others,” she said.

Sachin Chauhan, a second year graduate student, had also stayed back to work on his thesis, due February 6. “It was around January 15 that we felt that something wasn’t normal,” he recalled. Like with most of his batch-mates and friends, Chauhan got his news from other people. “Then our Chinese friends were also telling us of the rumours,” followed by instructions on maintaining personal hygiene and best practices to stay healthy.

As he waited for news from the Indian embassy earlier this week, Chauhan had also been torn about coming back, but unlike Ashish, he decided to return from Wuhan after fielding worried calls from his family back home. “We can’t leave it to the future. If something happens later, then possibly no one will help,” he said.

For their part, his teachers were considering relaxing the deadlines; Chauhan’s supervisor told him they could share updates and generally correspond over email and WeChat.

Sahil Shandilya, a 21-year-old medical student at the Three Gorges University in Yichang, another city in Hubei province and 300 km west of Wuhan, was also scanning for information from the Indian embassy on the WeChat group, with a bit of wistfulness. He knew he wasn’t going to be on the first light but had his fingers to get on the second, which one official had said would be reserved for residents from Shiyan, Yichang and Enshi, all in Hubei’s west.

As he messaged his friend, “There are 56 confirmed cases in my city!”

Update: Shandilya’s name has been included on the second list, released on January 31. However, the embassy hasn’t specified a date.

On Tuesday, he went for a walk but came back feeling dizzy and with headache. “I was very afraid, so I decided not to go out ever again.” Then again, Shandilya was also worried about his flight home and whether it would be more or less risky than sticking it out from within his dormitory. “We have now tried to avoid even peeking out of our rooms because there were many people who had a cough.”

Also read: WHO Declares Coronavirus A Global Health Emergency

After the first case of 2019 nCoV but before the city of Wuhan was locked down, Shandilya had purchased a bunch of protective masks that he distributed among his colleagues. Then, on Thursday morning, the university supplied each student with two new masks together with strict instructions to not step out of their rooms.

The mask Shandilya received from his university. Photo: Sahil Shandilya

When he observed several people writing on the WeChat group asking others to not fly back, he grew annoyed. “They have wasted their own time as well as others,” he said of the authors of the messages. “They must have called the [Indian] embassy at some point, and now they don’t want to go back because they’re afraid they will be kept on quarantine for 14 days.”

As he continued to keep an eye on the group, only one question lingered on his mind: “Do you think they will [also] evacuate other people in Hubei province soon?”