Chinese-American on her evacuation from coronavirus-hit city


There was little in the way of inflight entertainment for the American citizens evacuated from Wuhan this week.

Ningxi Xu first heard about the outbreak of an unknown pneumonia-like disease in China from a fellow plane passenger, hours before she was set to land in Wuhan to spend the Lunar New Year with her family.

Xu, 30, brushed it off. It couldnt have been a big issue as she hadnt yet seen anything in the news, she reasoned.

But from the moment her father picked her up from the airport wearing a face mask, her perception of the situation began to shift. Wuhans streets grew empty. Reports of people contracting the disease flooded her phone daily. News of family friends falling ill reached their home.

As of Friday, more than 720 people have been killed by the new coronavirus which Chinas National Health Commission on Saturday named the novel coronavirus pneumonia, or NCP for short and Xu now finds herself quarantined on a California airbase, one of several hundred US citizens to have been evacuated from Wuhan on US government-chartered aircraft.

Besides the tedium of a federally mandated 14-day quarantine, Xu, who landed in the US on Wednesday, considers herself lucky.

[Ive] won the lottery in this case, she says, speaking from her small room on the Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, the San Diego military base of Top Gun fame.

I know people [who], similar to my situation, went home to see their family and now they can't come back to the US and their career is at risk, she says, referring to a ban implemented by Washington last Sunday prohibiting non-US citizens who travelled recently to China from entering the US.

Though leaving her parents in Wuhan, where she was born and raised, was a difficult decision, Xu says they were relieved that she is now back in the US, some 11,000km (7,000 miles) from the contagions epicentre.

On the day she boarded the plane to leave, 65 people succumbed to the illness, almost 50 of them in Wuhan. And the day after Xu landed in California, a US citizen in the Hubei province capital died from the coronavirus, the US embassy in Beijing confirmed days later on Saturday.

Thankfully, everyone in my extended family is doing OK, Xu says. I have some aunts who felt ill but I think they're not doing too badly. They've just been recovering at home.

Beyond staying in close contact with her family, Xu, who works in finance in New Jersey, has spent the first few days of her quarantine keeping to herself and working remotely. She also has plenty of time to stay up to speed with the fast-moving developments of the outbreak that has made her hometown a reluctant headline the world over.

For much of the time since she arrived at Miramar, Chinese social media has been dominated by the death of Li Wenliang, a doctor in Wuhan whose early warnings about a Sars-like disease earned him censure from local authorities for spreading rumours.

His death was met with nationwide grief and anger, and triggered demands for a government apology.

Xu was one of several hundreds who flew home on Wednesday. 

Though all but two of the deaths and 99 per cent of the confirmed cases have occurred in mainland China, the spread of the virus overseas has prompted numerous countries to close their borders to visitors from China and advise their citizens against travelling to the country.

Britain, Japan and Canada are among the other nations to have evacuated their citizens, chartering planes to fly into Wuhans airport, which has seen no other outward traffic since the authorities put the citys public transit hubs on lockdown in mid-January.

Xu left on a windowless Boeing 747 operated by Kalitta Air, the Michigan-based freight company that has carried out the American evacuations so far.

Sitting in rows six seats across, the evacuees made little conversation with each other during the 12-hour flight over the Pacific.

We tried not to talk to strangers that much for fear of contagion, says Xu, who was exhausted and frustrated from having to wait hours at the airport before being permitted to board.

A brief moment of levity came when a member of the cabin crew, wearing a hazmat suit and respirator, excused his looking like a ghostbuster as he announced through a megaphone that they would be landing in 15 minutes, footage taken by Xu showed.

The journey had its scary moments, too.

At one point, Xu was summoned to the front of the plane because one of the many temperature readings staff had taken of passengers had returned a higher-than-normal figure. After a nerve-racking few moments, she was told her temperature was still within the acceptable range and was given the all-clear after a symptoms check.

For the US government, the flights have served two purposes. Beginning this week, the state department began filling some of the empty 747s flying to Wuhan with tonnes of privately donated medical equipment, including masks, respirators and protective gowns.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Friday that the donations were a testament to the generosity of the American people.

While remaining quiet on that humanitarian aid, Chinese government officials have issued a full-throated critique of the US for its travel ban and the extraction of citizens from Wuhan, actions they said had stoked panic around the world.

Beijing has also amplified guidance from the World Health Organisation, which has recommended against countries implementing travel and trade restrictions.

For its part, the US state department remained committed to doing everything we can to protect the health and welfare of US citizens overseas, a spokeswoman said when the evacuation flights began.

But it wont be the government footing the bill for that protection.

Xu and her fellow passengers had to sign a promissory note saying that they would repay the government for the flight. She was told the fare would be about US$1,000.

For a one-way flight, Xu says through incredulous laughter. She will also have to pay for her onwards travel to the East Coast, once she is cleared to leave quarantine.

Unlike many of her fellow evacuees, returning back to normal life could come with its own difficulties for Xu.

As the coronavirus has spread, so too has the stigmatisation of people from Hubei in China and racist harassment against ethnically Chinese people overseas.

This week, police in New York opened an investigation into a possible hate crime after footage emerged on Tuesday of a woman wearing a face mask being physically and verbally assaulted on the citys subway.

Its really unfortunate that some peoples knee jerk reaction is that everyone whos from China or has recently been to China is somehow automatically infected and contagious, Xu says.

Of her return to Jersey City, she says: I hope I wont be treated any differently.

Source: https://www.scmp.com

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