Letter from Wuhan to Kathmandu

Empty Bayi Street of Wuhan on 23rd Jan 2020.

It was a spontaneous decision to stay on. Having worked in humanitarian support, I could not leave at a time when a crisis on such a scale was unfolding.

The new virus which had brought Wuhan, a city of 11 million, to a halt by 23 January was still a mystery to medical science. Tests were not yet widely available, and hospitals were overwhelmed.

The first reports came much earlier in December 2019 of a mysterious virus causing pneumonia which was similar to SARS that had hit China in 2002-3. All the infected were connected with a wet market in Wuhan. The market was closed down, disinfecting and tests done.

There was no way of knowing whether I carried the virus or not. I did not want to be a vector carrying the virus to Nepal, where there were no cases, and in any case better medical services were available in Wuhan in the event I got sick.

Jiedaokou street on 7th Feb 2020.

On 7 February the danger of the epidemic was raised to the highest level in Wuhan. We were completely confined to our rooms from 8 February and it became obvious the situation was deteriorating. I started an online mental health peer support group for whoever wanted to share their thoughts and feelings.

Even before this epidemic, people are generally vigilant about communicable diseases in China. Having dealt with complex epidemics in the past, and considering the high population density, public health messaging is common.

The city went into a lockdownon 23 January, just one day before Chinese New Year when everyone travels home, just like Dasain in Nepal. All public transport, businesses and markets were shut down indefinitely. Private vehicles could ply the road only with permits given that it was for an emergency or daily necessity.

Staff on duty at International Students Dormitory during Lockdown on 15th Feb 2020.

With this announcement came a wave of panic that spread through international students and expats. The conversations shifted from need to take proper precaution to requesting respective governments for evacuation through diplomatic channels.

By 29 January, Japan, South Korea evacuated their citizens while the EU countries announced repatriation plans. Australia and New Zealand followed suit. Until this point, evacuation was being conceived as a measure taken by rich western countries to ensure the safety of their citizens.

When India and Bangladesh announced plans to repatriate their citizens, the gravity of situation was realised which triggered anxiety among students from countries like Nepal.

Empty premises of a community on 1st March 2020.

On 26 January, the Nepal Embassy in Beijing reached out to students in Hubei province through official notice and Wechat groups. By first week of February many countries had repatriated their citizens, and the dorms started emptying.

Students from Nepal started reaching out to the government in Kathmandu through their parents and contacts. Finally on 30 January the embassy in Beijing sent a notice calling for application from those who wished to be evacuated.

Despite the efforts that the government was making, it was evident that there was no contingency planning for such a situation. Applicants waited two weeks for news of the evacuation. The reason for the delay was attributed to lack of laws on civilian evacuation to unavailability of pilots.

Finally, on 11 February it was announced that Nepal Airlines would fly to Wuhan on 15 February and buses from various universities would be arranged to airport.

The Nepal Airlines Airbus 330 at Wuhan airport on 16 February to bring back 175 Nepali students. All photos: ABIHINAV SHRESTHA

The Embassy of Nepal had pulled it off. However, not everyone could make it. Out of 180 Nepalis who had applied, six could not board due to body temperature above 37.3 Celsius.

For the first two weeks after complete lockdown was imposed, one member of the family could go out and buy daily necessities once every three days. After those first two weeks, the restrictions became stricter and individual buyers were not allowed to enter supermarkets anymore.

Community volunteers were mobilised to buy necessities in bulk and were delivered in each community collection centres where households from the respective communities could collect it.

Students living in the dormitories were provided three meals a day for free. Masks, thermometers, immunity booster drinks and sanitary pads were provided regularly.

Thousands of medical workers from all over China to help in the battle against the the epidemic. The challenges were numerous, but with discipline and collective effort the epidemic was gradually brought under control and the city partially opened on 8 April after  76 days of possibly the strictest lockdown in the world.

On 22 May every single person in Wuhan was tested. Even after the restrictions were lifted, people did not flock all at once onto the streets. Distancing was maintained for months after, and to this day people wear masks in all public places, inside buildings and buses, despite the fact that Wuhan has not had any cases for five months now.  

Overgrown football ground of Wuhan University.

The pandemic then travelled from Wuhan to other parts of the world. Nepal was not spared. The situation in Nepal is far from the tipping point when the number of cases would reach a peak and then start to drop.

It requires a massive collective effort, but there are things Nepal can learn from China. Neither government nor the public can curb the spread on their own. The inherent philanthropic culture of Nepalis are manifesting themselves, and that is how we have survived through many disasters and epidemics through the centuries.

However, this time around the situation in Nepal is unique. The country’s health care system is far from perfect even at the best of times. Hospitals are already overwhelmed. So, the best we can do at the moment is to keep ourselves safe by maintaining public discipline and keeping physical distance from each other.

Nepalis are no stranger to difficulties, and are resilient. We have mastered the art of surviving through tough times. But there is no better way to take care of each other than volunteering for support.

Organising ourselves at Tole and Ward level and being mindful of those who might be in need of support, will put everyone at a better chance of surviving through this difficulty.

Dasain is around the corner, and the best thing we can do for our elders when we seek their blessing is to do it from a distance. The way to keep ourselves safe is to stay away from crowds, and always wear masks outdoors.

We can celebrate this festival in years to come only if our relatives make it through this trying times safely.

Source: Ministry of Health and Population of Nepal, World Health Organization, Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center

Silu Shrestha, PhD Student in Wuhan University, China.

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