Guyanese students in China urge calm amid coronavirus outbreak

By Devina Samaroo

Dozens of Guyanese students on Government-funded scholarships are currently in China amid the deadly coronavirus outbreak, one of the country’s biggest public-health crises which has already killed hundreds of people.

Bianca Phillips

Guyana’s Department of Public Service said its record show that 50 Guyanese students are in China; however, some would already have returned home.
Stephen Seeraj, a 25-year-old student of the Nanjing Medical University, acknowledged that while the situation is troubling, there currently is no need to be alarmed.
“I wouldn’t say I am scared but I am alert,” he said during an exclusive interview with Guyana Times on Wednesday.
The global death toll has surpassed 500, with two reported deaths outside mainland China. Over 24,000 persons are infected, majority in China.
Nanjing, where there are Guyanese students, is about 330 miles from Wuhan, where the outbreak started.
And, like many other Chinese cities, Nanjing has stepped up efforts to control the spread of the virus which continues to sweep the country.

Stephen Seeraj

“When we got news of the virus and how quickly it was spreading, that’s when it got our attention…I started to take all necessary precautions: masks, hand sanitizers, disinfectants, etc,” Stephen explained.
Bianca Phillips, a 24-year-old student in the same city, says she too is not fearful.
“I’m not scared, I’m concerned but I’m also hopeful. I feel safe where I am, at this point in time,” she reasoned.
Bianca, who attends the Southeast University in Nanjing, explained that her school is currently on lockdown.
“No one in or out!”
“An official notice was sent out stating that the semester will be pushed back and that students are asked to not return to school until further notice. If you do desire to travel or go home you must fill out a form seeking permission to do so,” she explained.

Having to live with limited contact with the outside world comes with many challenges.

Nanjing is located about 330 miles from Wuhan, where the outbreak started [Source: Google Maps]

For Stephen, boredom often gets the best of him. He spends most of his days following the news and playing video games.
“Usually at this period, we would be on break for Chinese New Year and its usually a time where we would take the opportunity to meet and hang out. But in light of the virus, we are just staying inside, trying to keep away, trying to avoid contact with people as much as we can,” he explained.
The situation is no different for Bianca. “It’s weird because, during the semester, I usually can’t wait for the weekend to sleep in and have a day to myself but it’s a whole new ball game when you have to be in a room all day, every day, not allowed to leave. It feels confining and I can only sleep so much,” she explained, revealing that she has turned to yoga to help pass the time and keep her mental health in check.
Shops are closing earlier, goods— including masks – have become limited, and prices have increased.

Going home
The Guyana Government had announced that it will not be evacuating students currently in China, saying it would be safer for them to remain in their respective hostels.
Before the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the coronavirus a global health emergency, some Guyanese students would have returned home, or travelled to another country.
On the other hand, Governments around the world have already evacuated or are making preparations to evacuate their citizens.
But for Stephen and Bianca, it makes better sense for them to remain in China.
“Many of my colleagues are looking to evacuate but I feel like the minute I step out of my room, the risk of me getting sick significantly increases. From my medical knowledge, I know that isolation is the best solution at this time and I’m leaning into and trusting that,” Bianca reasoned.
Stephen agrees
“You are able to control your environment. I thought about going home and the biggest thing that scared me was going to the airport and staying on the plane for more than 14 hours with over 200 people on the plane,” the young man pointed out, noting that his risk of contracting the virus might be higher.
“So, I am not in any rush to get home, I feel safe.”

Is Guyana prepared for an outbreak?
While there are already cases of the coronavirus in the Americas (in the United States and Canada), the chances of the disease reaching the Caribbean are low, the Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA) had announced in January.
For Guyana’s part, health officials have put systems in place to screen persons arriving in the country, particularly those who display signs of respiratory infections.
Additionally, authorities say persons arriving from China will most likely be denied entry into the country. This includes persons arriving in ships, with the country’s Maritime Department saying vessels with a recent travel history from Hubei will be denied entry.
The country’s main public health facility, the Georgetown Public Hospital, has already established an isolation area for suspected cases and officials at the various ports of entry have been trained to detect symptoms.
A national hotline number has also been established. Persons who develop flu-like symptoms after return to Guyana from China or another highly-affected country are asked to call 592-227-8683 ext 215.
According to the Center for Disease Control, the leading national public health institute of the United States, symptoms of coronavirus may appear in as few as 2 days or as long as 14 after exposure.
Symptoms include fever, coughs, and/or shortness of breath.

Stay calm
The current population of Guyanese in China remain unknown because apart from students on Government scholarships, there are persons in the country for various other reasons.
For those who are in the country during this time of crisis, Stephen and Bianca are urging them to remain calm.
“It’s okay to be scared, being away from home is already difficult, being away from home and living through an epidemic is definitely scary,” Bianca acknowledged.
“Protect yourself and protect the people around you. Take the necessary precautions, check up on each other, and be hopeful. In our home away from home, we are all we have, each other,” she affirmed.