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Stuck in Wuhan: Pakistani students' cry for help falls on deaf ears

Islamabad fears nation's medical facilities cannot handle coronavirus patients

A doctor walks out of an isolation ward at the Jinnah Postgraduate Medical Center in Karachi that was set up as a preventative measure following the coronavirus outbreak.   © AP

KARACHI -- Pakistani students studying in Wuhan are demanding immediate evacuation home, fearing that staying stuck in the virus-stricken Chinese city puts them at grave risk.

Over 800 Pakistani students have been stranded in Wuhan since Jan. 23, when the city was locked down to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus, or COVID-19.

After the viral outbreak, more than 20 countries evacuated their citizens. But Pakistan decided to let theirs stay put. The country's ambassador to Beijing, Naghmana Hashmi, told media on Feb. 2 that the students should not be evacuated, as medical facilities in Pakistan would be unprepared to receive patients who have contracted the virus.

After the decision, many students took to social media to pressure Prime Minister Imran Khan to reverse the government's decision.

The Nikkei Asian Review interviewed more than half a dozen students about the situation. All criticized Islamabad and demanded immediate evacuation.

Muslim Qadir, a Ph.D. student at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, said that he has been locked inside his accommodation for the last three weeks. "I am living with my family and I am depressed due to the lockdown," he told Nikkei.

Another student, Arsalan Khan at Wuhan University of Science and Technology, said the students do not want to live in Wuhan anymore. "We need to be evacuated as soon as possible and quarantined in Pakistan," he said.

Hubei University student Rehan Rashid was visiting friends in Wuhan when the city was locked down. He criticized the Pakistani Embassy for not helping them. "Embassy officials have told us they can help make our stay better, but cannot evacuate us," he said.

Despite the hardships, one student said that Chinese officials are trying to make life easier.

Naseem Baloch, a student at Central China Normal University, said that during the lockdown they are receiving three meals a day. They can also continue studying. "Our university has already started online courses and we can take these courses even if we return to Pakistan," he said.

Frustrated with their government's inaction, the students have reached out to humanitarian organizations in Pakistan. In response, the Abdul Sattar Edhi Foundation, a philanthropist group, has asked Islamabad for permission to evacuate the students on chartered planes.

The plight of the students has not gone unnoticed back home, with posts to social media chronicling their situation.

Pakistani media reported that a student named Hassan missed the funeral of his father because he could not leave Wuhan.

On Tuesday, the Islamabad High Court asked the government to reconsider its decision. Still, the government shows no signs of giving in.

Some experts have interpreted Islamabad's decision as a calculated move to show support for Beijing. On Monday, the Senate passed a resolution expressing solidarity with China in combating the outbreak.

Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program at the Wilson Center, an American think tank, believes Islamabad wants to signal its unwavering support for China. "Pakistanis won't abandon you. We will stay with you and get through this crisis together," is the message Islamabad is trying to send China, he believes.

Kugelman believes it is a questionable call given the tremendous health risks for Pakistanis in Wuhan.

Li Bijian, Chinese Consul General in Karachi, has also supported the decision to not evacuate the students. "Considering the available health facilities in [Pakistan] and equipment needed to treat and monitor persons infected with the coronavirus, it was the correct decision to not bring them back," he told Pakistani media.

On Wednesday, the Chinese embassy in Pakistan tweeted that three Pakistani students diagnosed with the coronavirus had been cured in Guangdong Province.

However, this was of little solace to the abandoned students. "We are facing complete uncertainty because the lockdown can continue untill June," Rashid told Nikkei. "We can't afford to be locked down that long."

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