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Zambians want students repatriated from China as coronavirus spreads

Medical staff members walking towards a military plane, which evacuated citizens of Russia and ex-Soviet countries from China's Wuhan province, the epicentre of an outbreak of the coronavirus epidemic, February 5, 2020.
Medical staff members walking towards a military plane, which evacuated citizens of Russia and ex-Soviet countries from China's Wuhan province, the epicentre of an outbreak of the coronavirus epidemic, February 5, 2020. Yuri Shestak/Vsluh.ru/Handout

Parents of some of the African students trapped in China amid the deadly coronavirus outbreak have urged Zambian authorities to bring back their children. But Zambia says an evacuation is premature.

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"Are they waiting for our children to die? And then they'll think about evacuating?" Asks Eleanor Mwukaila Nkole, whose daughter is currently stranded in Shanxi province, some 900 km from Wuhan, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak.

Nkole and other parents were dismayed to learn that Zambian authorities have ruled out repatriating citizens, on the basis that a evacuation would be premature.

"I don't understand what that means, because this virus is moving quickly," she told RFI.

The pneumonia-like virus has so far killed almost 500 people and infected tens of thousands more, with cases reported in at least 24 countries worldwide.

Many countries are evacuating or planning to evacuate citizens from parts of China hit by the coronavirus.

Zambia's Education Minister Brian Mushimba however, insisted students are better off in Beijing, where medical facilities are more advanced. 

Resources gap

"You can't just put your people in other people's hands," reckons Nkole. "If my child is in the next town with a friend and my child gets sick, I cannot say that because my friend has more money than me that my child should stay there."

Earlier this week, Senegal's President Macky Sall admitted that African countries like Senegal lacked the means to evacuate their nationals.

"They should have something to cater for a disaster like this," comments Nkole.

"What would they do if the virus started in Senegal? They can't just leave our children and other nationals there."

Some 4,000 Zambian nationals are among the thousands of African students stranded in Beijing, facing dwindling food supplies and limited information.

Nkole's daughter, Taonga--which means 'thank you' in Chewa, one of Zambia's 72 languages--is one of the few remaining students at Shanxi medical university.

"Most people have left, and my daughter is scared and she's stressed."

Student support

While authorities in Zambia have vowed to facilitate students through food and medical supplies, Nkole says her daughter has yet to receive any help.

"Some of the children are not receiving the food they promised. Shops are closed. Where will our children buy food? Some of them don't have water. And even the masks, my daughter as far as I know, has not received anything."

Zambia is Africa's second largest copper producer after the Democratic Republic of Congo, but economic growth and massive Chinese investment have failed to improve the lives of most Zambians.

Parents like Nkole, who lives in Zambia's rich CopperBelt province, look to their children for help.

"Those children when they come back into this country, they contribute directly to the economy of Zambia. Right now, they feel abandoned." 

Nkole is urging authorities to set up quarantine centres for returning nationals.

"Make centres available where they can be quarantined for two weeks and then let them get back to their normal lives. It's not fair to keep them there."

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