In April 2015, Pakistan signed the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) agreement with China. As a result of this agreement, public exchanges between both countries increased. This included Pakistani students getting scholarships to study in China. Over the last few years, many students from Pakistan went to China for higher education. It is estimated that more than 28,000 students from Pakistan are currently studying in China. However, recent developments in China after the outbreak of coronavirus have stirred unease and fear among these students. Some of them are campaigning for evacuation to Pakistan.
In the third week of January, the world came to know about the outbreak of the deadly coronavirus. Since this virus is fatal and so far without any known cure, there was worldwide panic. The virus originated from Wuhan town in the Hubei province and foreigners from all over China began leaving the country. Wuhan was locked down by the Chinese government to prevent further contaminations and thousands of foreigners got stranded in the city. More than 800 students from Pakistan were among them. At least 23 countries have evacuated their citizens from Wuhan but Pakistan chose not to evacuate its citizens. Since then, the stranded Pakistani students have been campaigning for the government to take back its decision.
Students claim they have been locked in their hotel rooms since January 20
Students in Wuhan are using social media to get public support for their campaign in Pakistan. It was reported in the media that a student stranded in China missed the funeral of his father. Zafar Mirza, special assistant to prime minister on health, tweeted that the government will take the best decision considering the circumstances. In reply to his tweet, some stranded students asked if the response of the government would be the same if children of ministers were among them?
Edhi Foundation took notice of the situation due to the mounting public pressure as a result of the campaign and wrote to the federal government to give it permission to bring back Pakistani students in Wuhan. There was no response from the federal government on this request.
The Friday Times spoke to several students in Wuhan for this report. These students claim that they have been locked in their hotel rooms since January 20. “We are facing extreme mental depression because we do not know how long this lockdown will continue,” said one student. They also fear being constantly at the risk of contracting the virus the longer they stay in Wuhan. They also shared their ordeal with the Pakistani Embassy in Beijing but did not get a proper response. “Embassy officials hang up the phone when we demand evacuation,” said one student.
These students have no complaints against their universities and Chinese authorities. They said Chinese authorities are taking good care of them and have told them that they can leave Wuhan only when the government of Pakistan gives them permission. This means that the ball is in the court of Imran Khan’s government in Islamabad which has chosen not to evacuate the students despite the mounting public pressure.
The federal government and some of its supporters are defending the decision of not evacuating students from Wuhan. They claim that if the 800 students are brought back to Pakistan, it will result in mass infection of coronavirus in Pakistan. This is based on the assumption that the evacuated students would be allowed to mingle with the population right after returning home. This will not be the case, and all the evacuees will have to go through a mandatory quarantine of 15 days somewhere in Pakistan. Once it has been confirmed that they do not have coronavirus, only then will they be allowed to mix with the population. Sri Lanka did the same practice successfully with its evacuees and quarantined them in a military facility.
The second argument against evacuation is that there are inferior healthcare facilities in Pakistan compared to China and so the students should remain there. This argument is also flawed because students stranded in Wuhan are not receiving any treatment and are just locked in their accommodations. Pakistan now has testing kits which can be used to diagnose coronavirus. So far, even China does not have the cure despite its superior healthcare system.
There are some Pakistani students studying in other cities of China who oppose the demand for evacuation. These students are opposing evacuation from a position of privilege because they are not facing the same problems as students in Wuhan.
On Tuesday, Islamabad High Court, while hearing a petition on this case, asked the federal government to reconsider its decision to keep the students in China. The court did not pass an order and once again pushed the ball in the federal government’s court.
Now, it is up to Prime Minister Imran Khan and his cabinet to do the right thing and evacuate their citizens from Wuhan.
The writer is a journalist and researcher. He can be reached on Twitter: @iAdnanAamir