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OPINION: Quarantined in China

With the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic in full bloom, a Pakistani student in Beijing describes the daily routine for students on campus, hoping to dispel some of the anxiety being fuelled by news reports.

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Updated: February 18, 2020

It’s 09:00 am on Monday in Beijing. I am still lying in my bed. I have a lot of research work to do but I lack the motivation to get started on it. Winter has never been this boring in Beijing before.

I am living in the dormitory for international students in China’s only media university. I came here last September to do a PhD in communication studies. I was quite happy and satisfied when I registered here. Little did I know this university would become a mini jail for me in the next five months.

I am waiting for the Ayis (Chinese translation for ‘aunties’). They will come any minute now to check my temperature. They started monitoring our temperatures two weeks ago to track down symptoms of coronavirus infection. They will come again in the evening to get my signatures on an attendance sheet. The international students’ office has told us to cooperate with them.

An hour later, they will spray alcohol disinfectant in the corridors, kitchens and other public spaces. We are instructed to wear masks in public spaces inside the building.

Most of my classmates went back to their countries at the start of winter break. I stayed to enjoy the snowfall. Several students are living in the dormitory but I have little or no interaction with them. The university has put a temporary ban on visitors. Even the students living in one dormitory cannot visit their friends living in another one. All universities around China are following the same rule after the outbreak of COVID-19, the novel coronavirus.

Students have been told to stay in their home countries until further notice. Those who are living on campus are told to restrict their movements and follow precautionary measures in order to avoid getting any infection.

Yesterday, two of my Pakistani fellows, Jamal and Yaseen, went back to Pakistan. Jamal had been receiving dozens of calls every day from his parents, siblings, cousins and other relatives.

His father was terrified after watching news reports on Pakistani TV channels about the condition of Pakistani students living in China. He told Jamal to take the earliest flight and return home. Jamal had to buy a very expensive ticket.

My father also called me two days ago. I somehow succeeded in explaining the situation. I am in Beijing which is 1,115 kilometres away from Wuhan. The Chinese government has launched a level one public health emergency response here. The hostel ayis are taking care of us. I am avoiding going out as much as I can. Of course, it gets very boring at times but I think it is wise to stay here. I can use this time to write a paper and outline my research proposal.

A couple of videos from Pakistani students staying in cities under lockdown created panic back home. They are stuck there until the Chinese government lifts its quarantine. They live in fear and wish to go back. The media in Pakistan is misleading in projecting those students’ miseries on us — Pakistani students who are not living in lockdown.

A group of students claimed in a video that they had no food supplies. I find this statement a little dubious. The epidemic came at a time when Chinese were on their spring break. Every year, the Chinese go on a two-week-long holiday to celebrate the new lunar year’s festivities with their loved ones. Markets are closed during the break. However, a few shops and marts remain open in each locality. When I first came to Beijing in 2015, a fellow Pakistani student told me about spring break and advised me to store sufficient food supplies for the period. I passed on this information to my juniors the next year.

Universities also keep a cafeteria open during the whole vacation period, albeit with a limited menu. Pakistani students usually come to China with their suitcases filled with basmati rice, a variety of daals and spices. One can also find a couple of restaurants and fast-food chains operational. There are very few chances that one would starve during this period.

The video was soon picked by the Pakistani media. It was played on repeat on the news bulletins and talk shows without providing this context. My mother too called me and asked if I had food with me. I told her I had stocked enough before the markets closed.

A reporter working for a news website in Pakistan contacted me for my comments for a story and to connect them with a few students in Wuhan. I connected the reporter with two girls in Wuhan who are trying to report the full information to the media and to my university fellow Jamal. The reporter gave more space to Jamal and his statement about flight cancellation than the rest of us who were narrating the complete scenario.

Such media reports are making our families worry. We want them to know that though the situation is tough here, the Chinese government is trying to help us too.

That day, all of us who gave comments for that piece, decided not to give any interviews to any media house. Why waste our time writing down answers when the story will be reported only from a specific angle? If any reporter from Pakistan approaches us, we ask how they plan to report it. They do not talk about how our universities are keeping a check on our health.

Universities across China are taking enough care of their students. Some universities in Wuhan have even provided food, masks, thermometers and alcohol disinfectants to the students.

My university installed a facial recognition system at its gates last year. No outsider can enter campus now. The gatekeeper also checks the temperatures of students and faculty members before letting them enter.

The hostel administration has put a box of tissue papers and a polythene bag in the elevator. We use a tissue paper to press the elevator button and then throw it into the polythene bag.

The hostel gate closes at 10:00 pm every day. This new practice started earlier this week. The gate opens the next morning at 7:00 am. We all found it quite disturbing. Even the idea of living in a locked building at night makes me uncomfortable. But then I think about those in Wuhan who cannot step outside their university anytime.

Ayesha, who I know from a Pakistani girls WeChat (a Chinese messaging app) group, is studying for a master’s in food sciences from Huazhong Agricultural University.

Her university closed its gates on January 26. No one can leave or enter the campus. If someone goes out, they have to spend 14 days in isolation in a separate building before entering the campus again. Huazhong University has a market, a hospital and a few cafes inside which are operational. If students need anything which is not available in the school market, they can request the international students’ office to procure it for them.

“We needed flour to make rotis,” Ayesha tells me. “It was not available in the school market. So we talked to the international students’ office. They took our room numbers and the next day each one of us received a 5kg bag of flour. They did not take a single penny for that.”

Huazhong University of Science and Technology (Hust) is one of the top-ranked universities in Wuhan. Though it allows its students to go outside the campus, one of the foreign students’ buildings has locked its residents inside since February 3. This dormitory is providing meals thrice a day to the students though. Other dorms close their doors only at night.

A friend connected me with a Pakistani student living there. Syed Tauhid Shah is doing his masters from Hust. The whole situation has, of course, frightened Shah.

“My room is near the highway,” says Shah. “I hear ambulance sirens four to five times every day. I don’t know whether these ambulances are carrying dead bodies or patients.”

Shah says this feels like the toughest time of his life but he has no other option than to accept all these decisions as Wuhan is in quarantine and the Pakistani government has refused to evacuate its citizens from there.

Dorms in Chinese universities have an independent regulating body. They can make their own decisions and get them approved by the school’s international office.

They probably locked this apartment building after a post-doctorate Pakistani student at Hust was tested positive for the novel coronavirus. Although he was living off-campus, the news scared everyone. Shah says the two students who accompanied the patient to the hospital were later put in isolation for 14 days, while the infected Pakistani student was shifted to another hospital.

I have not used WhatsApp for a couple of days. Like Google, Facebook and Twitter, WhatsApp is banned in China. I turn on the VPN. Soon, my phone is buzzing with a notification from all restricted apps. There are dozens of messages from my friends, relatives, colleagues and people I just know through the internet. Each one of them is worried about my health. They are telling me to return to Pakistan. Some of them especially called to know the ‘real situation’ here.

My younger sister sent me a dua to recite. I asked her where she got it. She said our mother found it on Facebook. A former colleague sent an audio recording of a hakeem, sharing a nuskha for the treatment of the coronavirus.

I open Facebook and the first post I come across is about azaab on China and how the reason is the internment camps for Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang. Two posts later, there is a photo comparing two women — one is Muslim with a veil and the other is a Chinese woman with a mask. The person has written that once China banned the veil and now it is asking its women to keep their faces covered.

I wonder what my parents will be thinking of, seeing such content online and on TV channels. I turn off my VPN. Enough for today.

The Pakistani girls group on Wechat that I am part of has 300 members who are studying in different universities in China. Girls often share duas in the group. Earlier they were sharing any article they would find on the internet about coronavirus but now the group admin has put a ban on sharing of any inauthentic information. They now talk about how they are spending their time in lockdown.

A psychology student told us on the group that she has co-written a research paper on the psychological effects of this outbreak on people. Another girl, who is serving as a research fellow in a university got a research project about the novel coronavirus. She is now our source of information. We ask her various questions about the virus. She says the situation is getting better. China’s top universities — Tsinghua and Peking — are also running similar research projects.

Fatima is the most active of all. She is pursuing a PhD at a university in Wuhan. Two days ago, she was criticising a group of Pakistani students from Wuhan University of Science and Technology who uploaded a video on social video about their ‘miserable condition’ with no food under quarantine.

“We are living in a high alert zone,” wrote Fatima on the group. “Everyone wants to leave but we can’t do so because of the quarantine. Maybe the purpose of this video was to push the Pakistani government to send a plane for their evacuation.”

Another girl is writing articles on the situation in Wuhan for WeChat’s news networks. She often shares the links with us. Another woman living in Shenzhen shares a vlog of her husband that he made when he went outside to buy groceries.

A week ago, I also went out to buy a charger for my laptop. The famous electronics market was closed because of the virus, so I decided to go to a nearby mall. On the bus, there were only three passengers other than me, each with their faces masked. Fourteen stations later, I got off in front of the mall. Two staff members of the mall were taking the temperatures of people at the entrance. Anyone with high temperature would not be allowed to enter. Mine was normal. I went to the Lenovo store, bought the charger and returned to my university.

I remember a few days ago, the girl in the WeChat group who writes articles for news sites was pushing us to start an online campaign. She said we could make vlogs and post them on our social media.

“We are not dying,” she messaged. “We are seeing how China is fighting against the epidemic. They haven’t abandoned us. Why is Pakistani media terrifying our already worried parents?” she wrote.

She has a point. This epidemic of selective reporting is more problematic for us than the virus. Life is not normal here but we are hoping for better days. Many universities have announced that they’ll be starting online classes for this semester. I hope my university starts these classes on time.

The writer is a PhD scholar at Communication University of China and writes a weekly blog for Independent Urdu. She tweets @tehreemazeem

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