Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 February 2020

Coronavirus: Afghan government leaves nationals stranded in Wuhan quarantine

More than 50 Afghans, including children, remain stuck in the stricken province as politicians and the aviation authorities pass the buck

As authorities battle the coronavirus, 51 Afghans in Wuhan province remain stranded in the centre of the outbreak waiting to be flown home by an indecisive government.

The deadly virus has infected more than 40,000 people in China, the country’s National Health Commission estimates, and more than 900 people have died from the disease. More than 460 cases have been confirmed in other nations as the virus continues to spread.

“We are all stuck here in Wuhan,” said Mashal Jalalzai, 22, an Afghan studying at the city's Central China Normal University. Mr Jalalzai, who leads the local Afghan student union, told The National that none of the 43 adults and eight children of this small Afghan community in Wuhan are infected, but they are suffering from living in quarantine conditions.

“We have been in quarantine in our rooms for the last 18 days. We are not allowed to go outside our rooms and yesterday they advised us to not even open the windows for fresh air due to the chemical in the air,” he said.

He said a police guard was placed outside their hostel to prevent them from leaving.

As other nations such as the UK and Jordan rushed to remove their citizens from the city, the students and their families contacted the Afghan Embassy for advice.

“At the beginning, they were helpful, updating us on our evacuation, with our paperwork, but over the last week they haven’t been replying to our messages regularly. All they said was that the process involves different ministries,” he said.

Back in Kabul, despite government departments forming a special working committee to devise an evacuation plan, the government has been slow to act. Each of the parties involved appears to be blaming the others for the hold-up in a frustrating bureaucratic loop.

Ministry of Public of Health spokesman Dr Waheedullah Mayar told The National preparations to bring the students home were under way.

“We have identified a quarantine place; we have all the resources allotted for it. Whenever the government takes the decision, we are 100 per cent ready to evacuate them,” he said.

The delay, Dr Mayar said, was largely over co-ordinating logistical details, specifically chartering a plane from the Civil Aviation Authority.

“We do understand that it is necessary to bring back our students but there are technical issues that we need to work on. The civil aviation department has the responsibility to provide us a charter flight and we are waiting to hear from them,” he said.

We are almost ready to leave the hostel and ready to die

Mashal Jalalzai

The Civil Aviation Authority of Afghanistan said it was ready to collect the Afghan students but was waiting for the President’s office to sign the decision off.

“We have taken all the administrative processes and we are ready. We have met with two Afghan airlines – Kam Air and Ariana Afghan Airlines – who have promised to provide transport. The leadership of Afghan government has to give us the final approval and we are waiting for that,” Mohammad Naeem Salihi, a spokesman for the Civil Aviation Authority of Afghanistan, said.

But Sediq Sediqi, the spokesman for President Ashraf Ghani, said authority for the decision was given to the Ministry of Public Health to decide if they want to leave.

The endless back and forth between those responsible for decision-making has led to fears among Afghan citizens trapped in Wuhan that they will not be flown home at all.

Hinting a government U-turn on evacuation, Dr Mayar cited World Health Organisation guidelines as a reason not bring the students home.

“WHO guidelines say that it is better for them to be there, since they are under quarantine and the area is under control. And the Chinese ambassador to Afghanistan has assured us that all measures to look after the Afghan students are being taken. They are provided with food and water,” he said.

But Mr Jalalzai shared a grim picture of life in quarantine in Wuhan.

“The food we get is not the usual food. We eat just enough to survive. It is prepared in the hostel, but those Afghan families living outside don’t even have access to food,” he said.

“I know the Chinese government is taking every possible precaution for our and their safety. There are doctors and security forces all across the city and they are doing their best. But we are not sick and need to come home where we can remain safe.”

All around them, students of other nationalities are leaving. The empty rooms and lack of company are beginning to take a toll on those still there.

“All the foreigners have been evacuated and Afghans are the only foreign nationals who remain. This is affecting our mental well-being,” Mr Jalalzai said, his voice growing thick with emotion as he said the group had outlasted the 12-day incubation period and shown no symptoms.

“Why won’t they bring us home? We are not sick … If all other countries could evacuate their students, why can’t Afghanistan? They are making us sound like a risk to our own people,” he said.

An explosion in social media posts focusing on coronavirus and the group trapped in Wuhan has led many Afghans to believe the students are a health risk.

Afghanistan has not yet confirmed a case of the virus among its 35 million people.

“I don’t think the Afghans should bring the students back to Afghanistan,” said a taxi driver, 32, from Kabul who identified himself only as Mohammad. “They risk bringing the virus to Afghanistan, and in any case if they are infected, they will be safer there. The Chinese government has better health services and they are more equipped to combat this virus than the Afghan government,” he told The National.

Mr Jalalzai was incredulous about the lack of support from his fellow citizens back home.

“I understand their concern, but we are still alive after 18 days – we are not sick,” he said. “But we are under tremendous mental pressure – we are scared. We are mentally and physically weakened.”

“We are almost ready to leave the hostel and ready to die.”

Updated: February 11, 2020 11:18 AM

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