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BSR: In the shadow of Covid-19 - petition from Wuhan

“Insomnia keeps me up throughout the night. Most of the time, I end up sleeping around eight in the morning and only for about three hours at most. Over the last few weeks I have discovered that we take sleep for granted. It's amazing how many things flood the mind and you find yourself wide awake during the night," says Tarie.

Tarie, a Zimbabwean student (not her real name) currently based in Wuhan, the epicentre of the corona-virus which has sent shock-waves throughout the world. The death toll stands at over 3,000 so far and it's spreading fast beyond China. Even the world’s financial markets are feeling the bite of the virus. They came tumbling down at the end of last week as China, the big factory of the world has shut down most industries or scaled-down operations in a bid to contain the virus. Big companies with a Chinese supply chain are forecasting a downturn in profits and there cold be a global economic recession.

This is the global picture. But there are real stories at the individual level. It is easy for these stories to go unnoticed. Such is the story of Tarie.

"The first thing I do when I wake up is to check updates on the virus, hopeful that things are better. But most of the time, I’m disappointed because the numbers aren’t friendly at all. They keep going up," she says.

I had asked Tarie to describe her typical day during the lock-down in Wuhan. She is a young university student living in campus accommodation. “Initially, the COVID-19 was outed on the 30th of December however the lock-down was initiated on the 23rd of January. We are currently locked in the Wuhan which is the epicentre of the virus. We have little or no access to supermarkets for food.”

This has made things difficult but some universities and colleagues are doing their best to assist, she says. “Some universities are trying to provide students with basic commodities. They have set up mobile stores for them to buy basic things. However, I cannot say the same for others and the average Zimbabwean who stays off-campus or is an expatriate working in China.”

My conversation with Tari followed concerns that the story and plight of the average Zimbabwean student in Wuhan is not receiving sufficient coverage. I said we would make the Big Saturday Read available to share their story. It’s hard enough being a foreign student far away from home. The crisis caused by Covid-19 has only made things worse for Tarie and her fellow Zimbabweans.

“After waking up, I do a little exercise,” she says as she continues to describe an average day in these troubled times. “I take a shower, then my day starts with me back in bed either watching television or trying to read a book but oft-times, failing to focus. It's hard to focus when there is so much racing through the mind. Sometimes, I try to play a game, anything to keep the mind occupied,” she adds.

Do you ever go out? Are you allowed to go out at all, I ask. “The only time I get to go out is when I am going to buy food which, thankfully, is not far from my apartment. It doesn’t take a minute to get there. But it is in moments like these that you appreciate the freedom to go out and do whatever you like, things that people often take for granted," says Tarie, clearly yearning for more normal times.

What about food, you say supermarkets are closed but the university is providing a mobile shopping facility, I probe further. Things have become expensive and unaffordable, she says.

“Most people are surviving by buying food however, for the less privileged person they cannot afford to get the simple basics as prices have now skyrocketed. Most items have doubled or even quadrupled in prices. Some schools in Wuhan are providing food to their students while other schools like my own are barely giving anything. We get water once every 2 weeks. We received 2kgs of rice once this past week. Some schools are even worse because they are not getting anything at all. Not forgetting those that stay off-campus and ex-pats. It's harder for them. I hear people are surviving on tap water and yet when we got to China, we were told never to drink tap water because it is not clean and very unhealthy.”

Tarie describes how she has had to change her eating habits. “I try to eat twice a day but I end up eating once fearing that my food will run out. We just don’t know how long the lock-down is going to last. Every little bit of food matters. Things are expensive now, because of scarcity,” getting a first-hand experience of the invisible hand.

So what else does she do now that university is effectively closed? “There are fellow Zimbabweans here so we try to have a little chat when we can. It’s good to have someone from home that I can talk to, especially at this time. Then I’m back in my room. Doing the same routine again. As I said, it’s like what we watch in prison dramas, except that there is no one guarding or forcing you into a routine. You just have to do it. It’s like living a paradox: you are free but at the same time you are not free.”

It is in these difficult times that you fully appreciate the value of having fellow citizens around. I ask Tarie how the Zimbabwean community is doing in Wuhan and China generally. Are they looking out for each other? “The Zimbabwean community in Wuhan is very united,” she says, thankfully. “Everyone is there for each other to raise spirits and help prevent cases of depression. We share the little that we have and help each other when we can. Fortunately, no Zimbabweans have been diagnosed with the corona-virus and we continue to pray that we all remain protected. There is no much else we can do except follow the instructions”.

Tarie has good words regarding her hosts, the Chinese authorities. “A lot has been said in media and I’d like to take this chance to clarify a few things from my experience. The Chinese government has gone out of its way to protect foreign students here in Wuhan. If the outbreak had happened in Zimbabwe I am not sure if we would be able to do as the Chinese have done. We are therefore very grateful for all they have done in this regard.” This is a heart-warming observation. It's not the same though regarding her own government back home.

What about the Zimbabwean government, I asked. “Unfortunately, we have not received any significant help from the Zimbabwean authorities so far and this has caused us a lot of anxiety. We have asked for assistance since we are in the epicentre of the disease but they have ignored our plea for help and declared us “ok” to the public. It’s disappointing because we are far from ok.”

I asked Tarie if fellow Africans were getting different treatment from their governments. “Yes, there is a very big difference. Countries like Namibia, Botswana and Ghana have provided funds for their students to buy necessities. Some other countries have also evacuated their citizens or are in the process of doing so,” she said. No wonder they are feeling neglected. They look at the fortune of their counterparts and realise they are not getting the protection they deserve from their own government.

Tarie adds that they are grateful for the help they have received from an association of Zimbabweans in China, called ZIMCAN. This has been most helpful, she says. However, one Zimbabwean newspaper had misstated the financial assistance as US$4100 when in fact it was RMB5700 which is the equivalent to US$817. Still good help but the fear is that inaccurate figures may give a misleading impression regarding their situation. “We thank those in China that are going out of their way to help us. We are grateful for their support and we can’t thank them enough.” Tarie and her fellow citizens just wish the government authorities could do more to support them in their period of plight.

What about the fellow Africans who are more fortunate – are they helping, I asked. “Africa is one and Africa is united but just not in situations like this,” says Tari. “I don’t know of any situation where there has been support from fellow Africans but we also fully understand that they are looking out for their welfare and they have no obligation to help us. We can’t and don't expect them to look after us.”

How have the locals responded to Africans in general in light of this disaster, I asked. “There are a few Chinese who are friendly to us and check on us now and then and we appreciate them,” says Tari before adding that it’s not always rosy. “However, some continue looking at us as if we are a whole different species. It’s hard enough during normal times. One would think this would lighten issues of racism but it doesn’t. But like I said, the Chinese and university authorities have tried their best in these hard times”

Her dream of earning a degree is now turning into a nightmare. And she is not alone. Tarie says there is approximately 350 Zimbabwean students and ex-patriates in Wuhan. Hubei province, where Wuhan is located, has roughly 800 Zimbabweans in total, she adds before reminding me that China is not a small country. “But China is a big country, I’m not sure about the total number of Zimbabweans in the country.”

The problem, she says, is that a story in one part of China might be given as a story of Zimbabweans in all of China. That would be a misleading generalisation, she explains. She gives an example, “Most of the Zimbabweans being assisted are not in Wuhan or Hubei Province as a whole. There was a story that came out stating that we are going out to volunteer. That was not in Wuhan. We are not allowed to go anywhere currently even if it is to volunteer. Airports and Railway Stations are closed. Chinese uber (DIDI) has been suspended since the 24th of January. No taxis or buses are available.”

I asked Tari if she and her colleagues had any message for the Zimbabwean government. She made an impassioned plea for help.

“We are in dire straits and urgently need assistance,” she pleaded. “Zimbabweans in Wuhan and around Hubei Province are suffering and we wish you would also look at our plight. We have not been able to go anywhere as we are confined in our different homes or campuses. Is the government going to turn a blind eye to the Zimbabweans stuck in this situation?,” I could feel her emotion.

But Tari and her colleagues are realistic and do not have great demands or expectations. “We know evacuation from China is out of the picture and we understand that,” she says. “But please help us with basic commodities at the very least.”

Do you have any message that you would like to send out your fellow Zimbabweans outside China, I asked. What can they do to help? “We want to thank you and appreciate all in Zimbabwe that have stood with us in this time of need and those that have been praying for us please continue to do so. We would be extremely grateful if you could also get our story out. It is not easy being in the ground-zero of the COVID-19 but because of your prayers, we are still strong and standing. We would undoubtedly appreciate those that could help us in cash or kind. We need basic commodities (food, water, sanitation) and most importantly masks and sanitizers.”

After speaking to Tarie, one can feel the palpable fear, anxiety and uncertainty that the Zimbabwean student is experiencing. It's all very distressing. It’s hard for them to raise concerns publicly because of fear of reprisals. They have tried to remain silent but the feeling of being neglected by their government is a source of pain, frustration and distress. They understand the big economic challenges that the country is going through, and that resources are scarce, but they just want a bit of concern and care from their government.

“These days a small cough sends chills down one spine," says Tarie. "It’s worse for those who suffer allergies like hay-fever. They live in constant fear that they might be mistaken for having the virus!" She manages a small laugh, betraying a very Zimbabwean trait of discovering humour even in the most distressing circumstances.

“Please continue to pray for us,” says Tarie, as she ends one of our conversations with a waving emoji – language of the young to say goodbye. I wish her well and tell her that I will do my best to tell the story.

Tarie’s story left me emotionally challenged. There are many young Zimbabweans who find themselves in a very difficult situation. It’s hard enough being far from home, as I know only too well, having been a foreign student in my youthful days. It was hard then but a million miles away from what these young people are going through. It's a situation over which they have no control. They need their government to step up; they need us, fellow citizens to do our bit. I have started here, by telling their story.


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