US citizens were preparing to escape from Wuhan on Tuesday night on the first evacuation flight to leave the centre of China’s coronavirus outbreak. But thousands of foreigners from other countries remain trapped in the stricken city.
They include football coaches, airline pilots, teachers and students who had found a home in the central Chinese city as its economy boomed.
Divyank Parekh, a 20-year-old student, said he was one of about 50 Indian students who remained in the dormitories at Wuhan University School of Medicine.
“We’re very worried because we see people getting ill around us,” said Mr Parekh. “We’ve called the Indian [consulate] hotline many times but they told us to wait. We don’t know how much longer it will take for them to help us.”
According to official statistics, Wuhan and the surrounding province of Hubei is home to tens of thousands of long-term foreign workers and students. Many have been unable to leave after the local government closed the airport, public transport and road links last week in an attempt to contain the virus. Officials have given no indication of when the measures will be lifted.
There are now 5,974 cases in China, 1,239 of whom are severely ill, according to state media on Wednesday. China also reported 26 new deaths overnight, 25 of whom were in Hubei, bringing the death toll to 132.
So far, the US, Japan, France and South Korea are the only countries to have confirmed timings for flights to evacuate citizens by air. The EU confirmed an evacuation for “over 100” citizens. France said its citizens would be held in quarantine after being repatriated. Japanese citizens will be medically examined before boarding the evacuation flight and will be asked to monitor their health for two weeks after their return.
Other countries, including Britain, Australia, Germany and Italy, have said they plan evacuations, but have not provided any details.
Expatriates have been calling their embassies and consulates for information but have been frustrated by the response. “We have not had any specific information on evacuation. It has been a very difficult time,” said Giuseppe, an Italian national who works at a ceramics company in Wuhan.
British people in the city last week received travel advice telling them to leave but they were not given practical guidance on how to do so. Some Britons were informed on Monday of plans for an evacuation but no details were given.
Tom Williams, a British teacher in Wuhan whose Canadian wife is 35 weeks’ pregnant, appealed to the government for help in an online post. “I just want to share our story so I can try and get my wife, son and unborn child safely out of the city,” he wrote.
At a meeting in Beijing on Monday, China’s foreign ministry said it was taking effective measures to combat the virus and advised foreign governments against evacuating their citizens, according to people who were present.
“They said they don’t encourage or recommend evacuation. At the same time, they also said if foreign governments decide to evacuate their citizens, they would co-operate,” said one diplomat.
Dani Carmona, a Spanish coach at a Wuhan football team, said he had stayed indoors for six days with his girlfriend. “We spend the day watching movies, reading . . . waiting for the permission from the Chinese government and the Spanish embassy to leave,” he said.
The US chartered a plane to remove consulate officials from the city on Tuesday, selling tickets to some non-government staff, including workers at a glass factory owned by industrial company Corning, at a cost of $1,000 per head.
“These travellers will be carefully screened and monitored to protect their health, as well as the health and safety of their fellow Americans here at home,” the US state department said.
Demand for tickets far exceeded supply. Priscilla Dickie, a 35-year-old Chinese language student, had waited anxiously to hear if she and her eight-year-old daughter could board the flight before getting the go-ahead to leave.
“Waiting for that call was really bad,” she said, speaking to the Financial Times at the airport as she passed through a series of “stressful” medical screening tests, with those deemed to be sick facing the possibility of being turned back.
Patrick Stockstill, a mortgage loan officer from Rhode Island in the US who had also secured seats on the flight, warned that many US citizens remained stuck in the quarantine zone.
“The one thing I want to bring awareness to is that there are still lots of US citizens in Hubei who have not been able to get out,” said Mr Stockstill, who was visiting family in Wuhan and is travelling with his children, one aged three years, and one three months.
Additional reporting by Don Weinland in Beijing and Katrina Manson in Washington