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Pakistani Students In Wuhan Say Pakistan Won't Evacuate Them For Political Reasons


Several countries bordering China have now reported cases of the coronavirus. One notable exception is Pakistan, which has also refused to evacuate its citizens from Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak. As NPR's Diaa Hadid reports from Islamabad, critics say it's because of the country's close relationship and dependence on China.

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: For the past few weeks, Pakistani doctoral student Mohammad Asif has been staring at the walls of his dorm room at the University of Wuhan.

MOHAMMAD ASIF: We are stranded in the room. And mentally, we are really disturbed.

HADID: We spoke over WhatsApp. He's allowed to leave his room to collect drinking water and meals. It's always the same - rice and vegetables. But it's the only time Asif gets to see other Pakistani students.

ASIF: When we go to collect the food, we usually meet there in just two or three minutes. Other than, we can not meet. And we're just feeling so lonely.

HADID: It's grim. And there's hundreds of Pakistani students living like this, spread over about two dozen educational institutions. Some of them have heartbreaking stories. One student says his father died in Pakistan while he's been in quarantine.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: In videos shared online, they beg to be evacuated.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: Asif says they're stranded for political reasons.

ASIF: They don't want to evacuate us just to show the solidarity with the Chinese government.

HADID: Because evacuating them would suggest China is not capable of dealing with this crisis. China's Pakistan's closest ally. It's invested around $60 billion into infrastructure projects. And it provides thousands of scholarships for Pakistani students. That's why there's so many of them stuck in Wuhan. Usually, Pakistanis say how grateful they are to China. But the issue of the stranded students has provoked rare anger. The Chinese ambassador to Islamabad even took to Twitter to assure Pakistanis that the students were being treated well.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: Meanwhile, the Pakistani government is straining to show its loyalty. Last week, senators passed a resolution expressing solidarity with China. And while Pakistani students are stranded in Wuhan, Chinese nationals who enter Pakistan and show signs of the virus are being isolated. And that whole operation is being overseen by the Chinese embassy. Doctor Mohammad Salman is a health ministry spokesman for the Pakistani government.

MOHAMMAD SALMAN: That has also been addressed by the Chinese embassy themselves because they've ensured that their workers, if they come, they will stay in some quarantine on arrival to Pakistan. And then they will be allowed to go after two weeks.

HADID: But the Pakistani health system is rickety. And weeks into the outbreak, isolation wards are still being set up for potential Pakistani cases.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: We accidentally entered one in a sprawling health compound. We walked into a corridor, partially concealed by plastic sheet, and realized there were empty, freshly made beds.

We just accidentally walked into the isolation ward.


HADID: We meet a senior nurse.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: The isolation ward...

HADID: He says they just got orders to create this 26-bed ward. Abdul Sattar, my colleague, translates.

UNIDENTITIED PERSON #4: (Through interpreter) We receive order today, so we have started working on that.

HADID: The nurse, who asked not to be named because the issue is so sensitive, says this is all very last minute. But so far, Pakistan's been lucky. It's tested more than 40 people. But there hasn't been a single confirmed case. And those students stuck in Wuhan say those isolation wards could house them if Pakistani officials allowed them home. Diaa Hadid, NPR News, Islamabad.

(SOUNDBITE OF TYCHO'S "OUTER SUNSET") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Diaa Hadid chiefly covers Pakistan and Afghanistan for NPR News. She is based in NPR's bureau in Islamabad. There, Hadid and her team were awarded a Murrow in 2019 for hard news for their story on why abortion rates in Pakistan are among the highest in the world.