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These Pakistani students want out of coronavirus-stricken Chinese city. Their…

by Ace Damon
These Pakistani students want out of coronavirus-stricken Chinese city. Their...

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On Thursday, for the first time in a week, Abdullah, 26, left his small dormitory at Wuhan University of Technology in China to buy fruit and spices to cook food for his country, Pakistan.

While Wuhan is dominated by the coronavirus outbreak, Abdullah and hundreds of Pakistani students are locked on their campuses, prevented by university officials from leaving for days at a time, telephone messages and WeChat are the only link to the dire situation outside your doors.

"I spend almost 10 hours a day on the phone talking to my family and friends in Pakistan," said the 26-year-old doctoral student, who asked that his full name not be used for fear of government or government reprisals. From China. “There is nothing to do in this small room. I fear going crazy in the next few days. "

Although more than 20 countries have evacuated their citizens from Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak that has afflicted more than 60,000 people worldwide since December, Pakistan has resisted calls to take home several hundred increasingly concerned citizens, many of them students .

For Prime Minister Imran Khan, the decision depends on health and politics.

Officials say Pakistan is unable to cope with an epidemic if large numbers of infected people reach its shores. But China is also one of Pakistan's most important allies and benefactors, and analysts say Khan is trying to show solidarity with Chinese President Xi Jinping, insisting that Pakistani students are safe and well looked after in Wuhan.

"Pakistan is with the people and government of China in its difficult and arduous time and will always support it," Khan tweeted on Wednesday. "We will extend all material and moral support to China, just as China has always been by our side during all our times of trials and tribulations."

Khan said he had instructed his Foreign Ministry "to do everything possible for our students arrested in Wuhan", but officials said that would not include bringing them home. Flights from China to Pakistan are in operation, but students cannot leave Wuhan without government approval.

An official at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss government thinking, said keeping students in Wuhan was "in the best interests of students and Pakistan" and added that the World Health Organization had said that evacuations were not necessary. .

"We all know that health infrastructure in Pakistan is not able to deal with these epidemics," said the official. "It could have devastating implications for Pakistan and the students' families if some infected students return."

The United States, Canada, Singapore, the Philippines, Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and Thailand are among the countries that have transported citizens home from parts of China affected by the outbreak. Pakistan and Cambodia, another country with close ties to Beijing, stand out for saying they will not carry out evacuations.

Hun Sen, Cambodia's authoritarian prime minister, said bluntly that his decision was a kind of "bland diplomacy" and a way of thanking China, his country's main trading partner and source of tourism.

"We are keeping [Cambodian students] there to share the happiness and pain [of the Chinese people] and help them resolve this situation," Hun Sen said last month.

Bradley Jensen Murg, an assistant professor of political science at Seattle Pacific University, said that Hun Sen's decision boils down to "his country's very close relationship with Beijing".

"Cambodia has acted as it normally does in situations where China has a strong and clearly stated interest: it has responded to Beijing's demands," said Murg.

For Pakistan with financial difficulties, fought in a blood feud with neighboring India and increasingly distant from the US, its longtime ally, China represents the last great country it can count on. Beijing has pledged tens of billions of dollars in grants and loans to Pakistan under the Xi & # 39; s Belt and Road infrastructure program.

"Due to our history and longstanding relationship and trust in our iron brother China, the Pakistani government has decided to follow international practices and standards in emergency situations and believed that China would end this virus soon," said Hamayoun Khan, secretary general of the Pakistan Council in China, a private think tank.

"Pakistani citizens will be more comfortable in terms of infrastructure and medical facilities available in China than in Pakistan," added Khan.

While families and opposition politicians are asking to take students home, the Khan government is trying to reassure people that they are closely monitoring their status. Zafar Mirza, Khan's health advisor, spoke to students in Hubei this week via Skype and said he "made sure we are doing everything we can to ensure that they are attended to".

"China has also pledged to look after Pakistan's students like its own children," tweeted Mirza.

For the 800 or so Pakistani students in Wuhan, his government's words are empty.

“We recognize the efforts of the Chinese authorities to support us during these difficult times. But we want to go back to Pakistan, ”said Abdullah. "We are ready to quarantine ourselves for two weeks [if taken back to Pakistan], but don't leave us here."

Abdullah said at least four Pakistani students had tested positive for the coronavirus since last month. All were treated and released from hospitals, he said.

Typically, there are about 1,300 Pakistani students enrolled at 25 universities in Wuhan, a city of 11 million in central China. About 500 students left China due to school holidays before the outbreak, the students said.

For those who remain, life is increasingly limited. Abdullah, who stayed behind during the holiday to complete the projects in the university's laboratory, said the university was providing basic food. But he had to argue with employees in his dorm for three hours to get permission to leave for two hours on Thursday.

He went looking for fresh fruits and spices, but found that almost all of the campus stores were closed and that there was nothing he wanted. He saw just one other person walking around campus, wearing a mask.

Depressed, he returned to his room after 45 minutes.

Special correspondent Sahi reported from Islamabad and the Times editor Bengali from Singapore.

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