A Nepali in Beijing during coronavirus scare

Peking University campus on the 26th of January. Photo: MADISON PLASTER

For the past week, I have been in a voluntary lockdown in Beijing because of the rapid spread of the coronavirus in China. A trip to the supermarket to stock up on supplies felt like being in a post zombie apocalyptic breakout, not waiting for the infected to attack you but actively making a run when someone coughed or sneezed. Relying on homemade noodles, I am looking forward to flying out of Beijing soon with no knowledge on when I will be back as many universities in Beijing have requested students not to return until further notice.

As seen in China’s 2002 SARS pandemic that infected more than 5,300 people and killed 349 nationwide, the government has yet again relied on putting almost 50 million people in quarantine to contain the crisis. According to news from the BBC, as on January 26th, the number of people killed in China has risen to 81 with almost 3,000 confirmed ill.

Embassies continue to work for the wellbeing of their citizens, and neighbouring countries such as Mongolia and North Korea are reported to have closed down borders with China. Acknowledging the uniqueness and severity of the situation as people were traveling for Lunar New Year, the Chinese government has extended the Lunar New Year holidays and both public and private sectors are adding buffer time periods before things start moving business as usual.

Like many crises situations, there seems to be more unknowns than knowns. While Wuhan seafood market was initially believed to be the source of the novel virus, a new study published in The Lancet of 41 hospitalised patients who had confirmed infections challenges that hypothesis. According to an article published in the Science, Daniel Lucey, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Georgetown, asserts that “The virus came into that marketplace before it came out of that marketplace.”

Transparency from the government in reporting the crisis also continues to be questioned within and beyond China. While state run media channels such as CGTN are showing hundreds of medical personnel voluntarily traveling to Wuhan out of a sense of duty to the nation, and a wonderfully staged case of people recovering from the virus and heading back home, people continue to question the legitimacy of the magnitude of the crisis as reported from the Chinese government.

While previous experiences suggest, be it during the air pollution crisis in 2008 or the 2002 SARS pandemic, that China has not been the most transparent in reporting crisis, the rise in social media and the internet means that complete lack of transparency from the government might not be just impossible but also counterproductive.


But in fleeing China for Nepal, I cannot question but wonder if I am safer in Beijing than I am in Nepal. A day after the first coronavirus case was confirmed in Nepal, two more suspected cases have emerged. While countries around the world are figuring out the best response mechanism to contain the crisis, Nepali authorities appear particularly unprepared.

The Epidemiology and Disease Control Division reportedly chose not to speak to the media, in following the orders from the Ministry of Health.

The rudimentary screening mechanisms alongside the lack of human resources and technology at the country’s only international airport needs no mention. And while China is building two health facilities with enough space for around 2,300 patients over the next few weeks, the Sukraraj Tropical and Infectious Disease Hospital in Teku lacks even a dedicated isolation ward.

It is disheartening to see fellow friends at university hear from their respective embassies whilst I was forwarded with a “do and don’t” list issued by the Nepal Embassy from a WeChat group. It is not that Nepali people expect a lot from their governments, but I can’t help but contemplate why I feel safer in the hotspot of a global pandemic than I would at my own home country.

Grappling with this idea has been difficult, but it also serves as a reminder for the very reasons why we must continue to fight to contribute to the development of Nepal in every way possible.

Rastraraj Bhandari is currently pursuing a Masters in Economics and China Studies at the Yenching Academy of Peking University in Beijing, China.