From Hubei to Kharipati

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

When Abhinav Shrestha, 23, saw the Nepal Airlines Airbus 330 jet finally land at Wuhan Airport last week, flying the proud sun and moon flag of his country on its tail, his heart swelled with pride. Only later, after boarding, did it sink in that he would soon be going home after three weeks alone in his dorm room in Jingzhou in China’s Hubei province.

Shrestha was halfway into his one year MBBS internship at the Jingzhou No. 1 People’s Hospital, when news came of the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan  three hours drive away. Doctors at the hospital advised all students to remain in self-quarantine for two weeks.

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Although the uncertainty was harrowing, being the son of a physician back in Nepal and a medical student himself Shrestha knew that the virus had a low fatality rate  He was in constant touch with his father, who reassured him, advising him to take necessary precautions and urging him not to worry.

“I knew the elderly were most vulnerable, and was aware of what to do to protect myself from the virus, but there was nothing to protect me from the boredom and loneliness of those three weeks,” Shrestha told Nepali Times over the phone on the fifth day of his quarantine at Kharipati near Kathmandu.

Of the 182 students in Hubei province who signed in to be flown back to Nepal, six had fever and were returned to hospital from Wuhan airport. Shrestha says that among their Chinese peers it was a matter of great pride for the Nepali students that their government had sent a plane specially to take them home. Many African students and those from other Asian countries are still in lockdown in various cities in Hubei.

“It was surreal seeing the big Nepal airlines jet taxiing in to the empty terminal in the snow,” Shrestha says. “Whenever I travelled between Nepal and China, it had always been in a Chinese airline.”

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Shrestha had been back to Nepal just twice during his six years in China, and it was finding himself at the epicentre of the epidemic that brought him back home for the third time. After completing his studies at Yangtze University in Jingzhou, he was interning at the Gastroeterology Department at No. 1 People’s Hospital when he first heard about the coronavirus outbreak.

Shrestha and other students had their temperatures checked five times during the three hour bus ride to Wuhan airport, where they had a through medical exam one more time before boarding.

After the five hour flight to Kathmandu, Shrestha and his fellow passengers were taken to quarantine at a converted NEA training facility at Kharipati  where he shares a room with two other Nepali students.

“It was great relief to be back home, and although our movement is restricted we feel much freer here than during lockdown in China,” Shrestha says. “It is like being in a college hostel again, and the food is superb.”

The evacuees have been spending time hanging out with friends sunning themselves on the terrace and using the free SIM cards provided by the government. They play sports and watch movies.

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Shrestha has also been studying at night, in case he can go back to complete his internship and the exams at the end of it. However, there is uncertainty about when his university is going to reopen.

Shrestha and other students say they also miss China, which has become a second home to them. Many of them speak Mandarin, which has allowed them to make Chinese friends that they left behind.

“I really miss China,” says Shrestha, who is trying to see if it is possible to complete his internship in a hospital in Nepal.

His experience has strengthened Shrestha’s conviction in his choice of profession. He witnessed firsthand how patients had to be sent back home in the early days of the outbreak despite Chinese health officials’ best efforts, because there simply wasn’t enough space to treat everyone. But he saw that the patients did not lose hope.

“They would wait outside the hospital all night,” he remembers. “My father is a doctor, so I had always wanted to be one too, but in those moments I realised how much people expect from doctors.”

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Preliminary test results of all 175 students evacuated from Hubei have come back negative for COVID-19. The evacuees will undergo another round of testing after the 2-week quarantine period is over before being given the all-clear.

Shrestha cannot wait to see his family. He points out that since the news from China was mostly focused on the deaths from the virus and not the recoveries, his family had been really concerned. He adds: “The joy I will feel when I see them after the quarantine is over will be very different to the joy I felt when I previously came back home from China.”

Shristi Karki


Shristi Karki is a correspondent with Nepali Times. She joined Nepali Times as an intern in 2020, becoming a part of the newsroom full-time after graduating from Kathmandu University School of Arts. Karki has reported on politics, current affairs, art and culture.