FILE PHOTO: Health workers waits to screen travellers for signs of the coronavirus at the Kotoka International Airport in Accra…
Health workers waits to screen travellers for signs of the coronavirus at the Kotoka International Airport in Accra, Ghana January 30, 2020.

WASHINGTON - As the death toll from the coronavirus continues to mount in China and elsewhere, thousands of African students in China count the hours hoping that their governments will evacuate them.

Solomon Yohannes of Ethiopia, a third-year engineering student at Wuchang Technology University in the Wuhan region of China, the epicenter of the outbreak, sat in a room on a nearly deserted campus. He said virtually all of Wuchang’s 15,000 students have left, but about 200 foreigners, mostly Africans, remain. 

“We are counting on the next two to three days for some solution,” he told VOA’s Afaan Oromo service. Until then he and others will remain secluded. “If you leave, you have to wear all the protective gear,” he said.

Another student at Wuchang called on the Ethiopian government to take action. “We want the government to take us out of the country as every other government is doing,” the student told VOA’s Amharic service. “America, India took their whole citizens out of the country. We also want to tell the government to at least take us out of the city where the crisis is right now.”

There are an estimated 61,000 African students studying in China, and they now face food shortages, isolation and uncertainty. Last week a 21-year-old student from Cameroon studying in the city of Jingzhou tested positive, becoming the first reported African student to contract the virus.

Hermes Koundou, a third-year engineering student from the Central African Republic studying at Nankin University, about 530 kilometers east of Wuhan, said students there are cautious.

“We buy food online, you see, and we cook inside our rooms because it is not easy to get to the common kitchen over there, as many people are there cooking,” he told VOA’s French-to-Africa service. “And you never know, you could be in contact there, with a student already infected with the coronavirus. So, we stay in our rooms.”

Antony Waigwa of Kenya, a Ph.D. student at the University of Chinese Academy of Sciences in Wuhan, said he and fellow students have been offered masks and given free wi-fi and access to an emergency hotline. While they wait for information, they are keeping the thermostat high in the belief that it may decrease the ability of the disease to be transmitted. 

A doctor (L) talks with a patient during his rounds at the ward of a quarantine zone in Wuhan, the epicenter of the new coronavirus outbreak, in China’s central Hubei province, Feb. 3, 2020.

“The situation is tense. We’re just afraid of contracting the disease,” Waigwa told VOA’s Swahili service. “You cannot say that you are fully safe because you can get it. The disease is transmitted via air. It’s an airborne disease as much as it is contagious. But it is manageable by keeping ourselves safe by not getting out of the school compound.”

Ethiopian Ambassador to China Teshome Toga Chanaka said the Embassy is closely monitoring the situation and added there are approximately 100 Ethiopian students in Wuhan city and about 300 in Hubei province. He said they are in contact with student associations but said neither the government of China nor the World Health Organization is advising evacuation right now. 

“This is a very serious matter. We are very much concerned, of course, about the situation. But we also have confidence in the prevention and control measures the government of China is taking,” he told VOA’s Amharic service.

He added that evacuation is a complicated process requiring clearance from various Chinese ministries and agencies and then preparation in Ethiopia to receive the students. He said many African embassies are in touch with one another and ready to act, if needed. 

“We are not alone in this. Literally all African countries have students in Wuhan city. So, I don't think Ethiopia is alone in this,” he said. “We are also making consultation among the Beijing belt of African embassies so that, when the push comes to shove, certainly we will be taking action.”

This story originated in the Africa division with reporting contributions from Horn of Africa Amharic service’s Eden Geremew and Afaan Oromo service’s Sora Halake, Swahili service’s Patrick Nnduwimana and Idd Ligongo, and French-to-Africa service’s Timothée Donangmaye.

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