The Chinese city of Wuhan is currently in quarantine and its 11 million citizens are cordoned off at homes. When the coronavirus broke out, there were 80 Iranian students living in this city.
These students were repatriated last week and are currently quarantined by the Health Ministry for a two-week period. They say people should not be afraid of them because they are not sick. That’s what the Health Ministry says, too.
Ahead of the evacuation, Iranian journalist Taraneh Bani-Yaghoub conducted interviews with two of these students. What follows are excerpts of Bani-Yaghoub’s report and interviews with these students:
Today, Wuhan goes through a story similar to Jose Saramago’s novel Blindness; a city in quarantine, 11 million confined populations, empty streets, smoke, closed shops, disinfectant odors, bodies that no one dares to approach and 80 Iranian students who are trapped there. They have a health record and they are going to be quarantined for a while after return, but what can they do with their fear?
Sina Safavardi is a business student and representative of Iranian students in Wuhan. He has lived in the city for four years and says Wuhan is his second home.
“Before the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, Wuhan was a quiet student city, but the things I see these days really seem strange to me. I think this situation will continue for the next few months and it will take time to eradicate the disease.”
Sina says the disease is as scary as people have heard about it or seen in movies and photos.
“Just a few days ago, I delivered the food packages that the [Iranian] embassy had provided for our fellows. On the way, I saw a sick person who fell to the ground. I have witnessed how they move the dead and wrap something like a plastic bag around them. It is even hard to see. The guys, who live in the Hankou area, are in a worse situation, especially medical students whose dormitories are near the hospital and can’t get out of the house at all.”
Q: Aren’t you scared to go out and deliver the packages?
A: I have no fear at all. Many of the students were stressful and told me not to go. Believe me; this stress in the quarantine is even worse than the fear of disease. When the Chinese themselves understand someone is from Wuhan they treat him badly. They even beat him and forcibly expel him from the restaurant and hotel. Of course, it has been thirteen days now that the city is under military rule and everywhere is closed.
Q: Do you mean the whole urban area when you are talking about the quarantine?
A: The whole city is quarantined. The [Iranian] Embassy has to give permission to you to go to a part of the city. Many of our colleagues can’t even go out to buy food, especially those in the Hankou area. All supermarkets are closed or empty. Of course it’s been three days that they have been feeding the hostels, but unfortunately we are not living at hostels and have to prepare our own meals.
Q: What do you do for food? Does the embassy provide you with the foodstuff?
A: Yes. Packages containing food, vitamin C and masks. They also introduced us to a warehouse. The warehouse was in the suburbs of Wuhan. They also gave us a car for transportation. This warehouse is not owned by the Chinese; it belongs to Muslims and its owner is an Arab. The embassy has helped us a lot and they want to help us return now.
However, the situation is tougher for Mohammad Alizadeh, a medical student who has been in Wuhan for four months.
“We have to stay in our neighbourhood for the first year and move to Hankou the following year, which is the centre of the virus epidemic. We as the newcomers are even more frightened because we are not familiar with the Chinese people, their culture, their language and their customs,” says Mohammad.
Mohammad lives out of the dorm and has not left home these days and has been living with the embassy’s foodstuff, which he says is about to end.
“There is no traffic, no taxis, and no buses. The ban has been imposed. Wuhan has become a ghost town. Even now we have the stress of going back to Iran and the kind of reaction people have.”
Q: Mohammad! Have you been insulted?
A: If you look at different news and social networks, you will find out. Believe us. We are in good health and have had tests and will be re-tested when we return.
Sina also confirms Mohammed’s words that Iranian students are more mentally and psychologically pressured than feared by Corona.
“Some went out of the town, but when they saw their visas and realized that they had come from Wuhan, they didn’t let them in. They were displaced. Please tell people that we will take the tests before leaving Wuhan, and we will be quarantined for 15 days when we arrive in Iran. They said we would stay at a hotel. We needed a lot of permissions from different authorities to be allowed to fly. Mahan Airline’s flight is to return us.”
“The embassy guys really helped out. We were the first country to distribute food packages among the students. They were in constant contact with us, and they resolved the students’ military service issue to facilitate our return. Many countries have returned their nationals, except for the Iraqis, Yemenis and Syrians who cancelled their return and said they would not assist their nationals to return. Iraq was supposed to send a plane, but then said they should stay here. Our biggest fear is the people’s treatment. Tell people we are not a harm to our country.”
The people of “Blindness” novel did well in the end. On the day they realised they could regain things through public empathy, they gained their vision. Many are afraid of the arrival of Corona in Iran these days. Many ask whether this disease can affect us too. Perhaps the only way to prevent the disease in the country is through empathy and accurate information-giving.