When Margaret Ntale Namusisi’s daughters called her in Uganda to say they were being quarantined at university in Wuhan, China, because of the coronavirus outbreak, she sent money and told them: “Run fast and do shopping.”
Valeria, Veronica and Vivian did just that. Almost a month on, with no help from their government, they are under lockdown in a crowded apartment with orders to stay indoors with windows closed. Food, funds and morale are running low.
“They are traumatised,” said Namusisi, who wakes up at 3 am every day to talk to her daughters over the Chinese messaging service WeChat. “They ask, has Uganda given up on us?”
Countries across the world have flown nationals home from China’s quarantined Hubei province, the centre of the virus outbreak that since January infected more than 74 000 people and killed over 2 100.
No sub-Saharan African country has done so, leaving thousands stranded.
“We’ve gone to parliament, we’ve gone to the ministry of health, we’ve gone to the ministry of foreign affairs and taken our petition to bring back our children,” said Namusisi.
Reuters spoke to families from Cameroon, Uganda, Senegal and Ethiopia with similar tales of frustration. Many set up associations to pressure governments to act through letters and petitions.
Governments across Africa plan to send money to students to help with expenses. Cameroon said it was sending about $82,000 to help citizens stuck in Hubei.
Many including Senegal and Uganda do not have resources to care for coronavirus patients at home and their nationals are safer in China where authorities report a dramatic drop in new cases in Hubei.
Uganda said last week it would send $61,000 to students stuck in Wuhan, the Namusisi sisters have received nothing so far.
They survive on a meal a day of noodles or rice, their mother said. Other foods are too expensive: one kilo of beef costs $13, a tomato a dollar.
They are not alone. Dagmawi Demelash Mengistu, a business student from Ethiopia, said his school provided latex gloves and masks, but his government has not responded to students’ calls to be flown home.
He too is locked inside, short of food and money.
“We have seen one plane come for four students in Wuhan to evacuate them, just one plane,” said Mengistu part of a student association that asked the Ethiopian embassy to fly them home.
“Ethiopian airlines haven’t stopped flights from China so that is a shot to the gut when you see they are still continuing flights but cannot take their citizens out.”
Ethiopian authorities did not respond to requests for comment.
A LIGHTNING STRIKE
Many African nations are nervous about a little-known virus breaching their borders.
Ebola killed over 11 000 people in West Africa between 2013 and 2016. An ongoing outbreak in Democratic Republic of Congo killed over 2 300.
Health officials say those epidemics prepared countries to stop coronavirus spreading and the World Health Organisation says 24 African nations can test for potential cases. Airport screening and monitoring procedures have highlighted possible coronavirus cases across the continent.
The Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention last week called on governments to bring Africans home. This provides little comfort for those stranded in China or their families who received little or no communication from their governments.
Roger-Michel Kemkuining, a Cameroonian, found his student son Pavel contracted coronavirus from a statement posted online by Yangzte University, where Pavel is studying.
The statement, seen by Reuters, said the university informed the Cameroon embassy and the parents – news to Kemkuining.
Cameroon’s health ministry spokesman, Clavere Nken, confirmed the family found out via social media. He had since spoken to them by phone. Yangzte University did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Pavel is the only African known to test positive for coronavirus. He has recovered and was released from hospital on February 10 but remains in isolation, he told Reuters.
For his father, the situation rankles.
Seeing the statement was “like a lightning strike,” he told Reuters at his home in Yaounde. “I was really dejected.”