J'cans in China worried

J'cans in China worried

But locals at epicentre of coronavirus outbreak remain calm

Managing editor

Sunday, January 26, 2020

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Master's degree student Norville Belvett wishes he were anywhere else but his dorm room in Wuhan.

The Chinese city has been under lockdown for the past four days because of a worsening of last December's outbreak of a previously unknown respiratory virus coronavirus (2019-nCoV) that has since spread beyond China's borders.

Meanwhile, entrepreneur Dr Nicoleen Johnson, who was in Shanghai during the 2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic, has decided to extend her vacation in Jamaica as she anticipates that more Chinese cities will soon be impacted; and Shereka Walker, who lives in Beijing, is running out of ways to keep her three-year-old son's mind off what he loves best playing outside.

For Jamaicans living in China, the coronavirus is all too real.

“I wish I was somewhere comfortable, watching it on TV. I'm in the epicentre. I wish I wasn't,” Belvett said with a wry chuckle during a phone interview at 4:00 am Saturday, his time. Even when there is no threat of a virus he doesn't sleep much. He's the only Jamaican among what he estimates is more than 1,700 international students at Wuhan University of Technology.

Wuhan, the capital of central China's Hubei province, is infamous for being the city where the 2019-nCoV virus was first detected. There have now been reported cases in other parts of China and wider Asia, Europe and North America, but the majority of China's 41 confirmed deaths so far have been in Wuhan, a city the size of London with a population of roughly 11 million.

The strategy has been to try to minimise the spread of the virus by keeping people already in Wuhan within the city, and preventing others from coming in. Airports and ferries have all been closed and residents are being encouraged to remain indoors. This weekend, travel restrictions were expanded to cover even more cities in central China, impacting about 20 million people.

Yesterday, President Xi Jinping warned that China was facing a “grave” situation as authorities in the world's most populous country scrambled to contain the disease that has already infected nearly 1,300 people, building a second field hospital to relieve overwhelmed medical facilities and closing more travel routes as the country marked the Lunar New Year holiday.

Normally, Belvett wouldn't even be on the Wuhan campus at this time of year, when most students go travelling to celebrate Chinese New Year. But the 38-year-old third-year civil engineering student from Spanish Town stayed behind to work on his thesis, planning instead to travel closer to his birthday in mid-February. Then, on January 21, with rumours of a shutdown, he tried to leave. He got a ticket for the 3:00 pm train the next day. His destination: four hours away to Jiangsu to stay with his girlfriend Aisha Thompson, who is also student.

It was too late.

On the morning of January 22 he tried to get an earlier train but by then service had been suspended. So too were the buses and subways. Using a popular phone app, it took him three hours instead of the usual five minutes to get a taxi to take him to his dorm. The usual 45-minute cab ride from the train station to his school took double that time as the traffic was heavy because of the closed subways.

“Back at the dorm they checked our temperatures when we got in and issued us with face masks. Our advisor sent a message that if we planned to leave the dorm we need to say where we were going, why and how long we intended to stay out. We were advised not to leave,” he said. The school also provided contact information for the teacher on duty they should call in case of an emergency.

For now Belvett is rationing the two-week supply of groceries he bought a few days before he planned to leave, mindful that as is usually the case for Chinese New Year the small on-campus grocery store is closed. Chinese New Year holidays began on January 25 and will end on February 2. Belvett is not sure if a larger off-campus supermarket is still open. But overall he is in good spirits and he appreciates that people from the Jamaican Embassy in Beijing have called to check if he is okay.

He is also grateful that his family and friends in Jamaica keep in constant contact. He receives a lot more information from them than from inside China, he said. “If I could [go home to Jamaica] I would, to be honest, [but only] because information is not readily available [in China].” As usual, there is a lot of information in informal chats on China's ubiquitous social media app WeChat, but the veracity is questionable, he added.

Belvett is trying to remain calm and level-headed.

“The worst thing is to panic, because then you make stupid decisions. I'm just observing, rationing my food. I took out all my money from the bank, [so] in case I have to leave, I can do so,” he said.

He is also doing his best to stay healthy. “I wear my mask, use my [hand] sanitiser, limit my contact with others, and avoid crowds.” He estimates that most of the 73 students who live on his dorm are still there. Looking ahead to July, when he is scheduled to graduate, Belvett is quite clear in his mind that he will accept no delay; virus or no virus.

“I am leaving in July, regardless, so they better prepare to mail my degree,” he said with a laugh. “There are a lot of Jamaicans in China and we are a close-knit group. For now, wi good; just don't forget us.”

One of those Jamaicans who calls China home is Dr Nicoleen Johnson, who is now in Westmoreland visiting family. She was scheduled to return to Shanghai, where she has lived for the past 23 years, on a January 28 flight. When the Jamaica Observer spoke with her on Friday evening, she had just hours earlier decided to take several friends' advice not to return to Shanghai as scheduled. She has extended her stay for three and a half weeks.

There is a lot of travel involved in her role as owner/managing director of Global Connections Gateway Company Limited, which facilitates travel and trade between China and the rest of the world. She is also the Global Jamaica Diaspora Council's representative for Asia & the Pacific Region. Having lived through China's SARS outbreak 17 years ago, Johnson thought it best to stay in Jamaica for now as it will not severely impact her business. She anticipates that movement will eventually be restricted in even more cities in an effort to contain and treat the virus.

“It will be like a ghost town when you walk around outside. They will be told to stay inside and the Chinese will obey. For work, I would need to travel. But if I go back, I would just be locked inside the house,” Johnson explained.

She remembers that during the SARS crisis, mass gatherings were discouraged in order to minimise spreading the disease. Churches, restaurants, nightclubs and schools were among the establishments that had to temporarily shut their doors. According to Johnson, some churches have already closed this time around and some Jamaican teachers have been advised that schools will reopen later than planned after the Chinese New Year, so they should extend their vacations. Despite all this, however, she is confident the Chinese have the situation under control.

“Based on past experience, if you are going to be trapped in any country with an epidemic, China is not the worst place to be,” she said. “[People] can order [food] online and have it delivered. I know the Chinese will provide enough food and see that it gets in. That's been my experience.”

She added: “The Chinese Government tend to be very alert and willing to pull out all the stops to ensure the security of their people. We just have to watch and see. If you are already in China, don't panic. If you're not there, don't rush to go back.”

As president of the Jamaican Association in China, which was launched in December 2019, Johnson has been checking in on countrymen trapped in Wuhan, ensuring they have all the support they need and providing updates to and from Jamaica's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“There were a couple of people who were getting nervous. They were texting to get information about [what] SARS [was like last time], asking if they should give up their jobs and go home. Some both students and working professionals were panicking; this was mostly those who were new to China or new to being so far away from home,” she said. “I told them just stay calm and follow instructions. But the distance from home is scary. Being told you can't travel scares people. Some are concerned about running out of food. I've been giving advice and reassuring them that what is happening is a normal reaction to the outbreak. The Chinese were able to eradicate SARS eventually. The policies are in place for their protection.”

But young mom Walker is not as confident. “My concern is how long will it take to get it under control before it gets worse? [As we speak] Beijing now has 36 confirmed cases, and that may not seem like a big proportion of the thousands of cases in China, but the suggestion is that the numbers will rise after people return from Chinese New Year travelling,” she said.

Al Jazeera reported on January 25 that 1,287 cases had been confirmed in China, most in Wuhan.

Walker, who is doing a Master's degree in international business and e-commerce at the University of International Business and Economics, has lived in Beijing for the past four years. The school at which her son Nathaniel is a student and her husband Damian works as a teacher has been closed for an extra two weeks as a result of the virus, and after two days of being cooped up inside she already has a cranky toddler on her hands.

“He's miserable because he likes going outside to play. We have to try and occupy him. At three he just wants to go outside. It's not going too well, but we have no choice,” she said, speaking loudly to be heard over her son's voice. She had tried for about 90 minutes to get him to take a nap but finally gave up.

Walker is also concerned about whether they will have enough food. They went grocery shopping two days before she spoke with the Sunday Observer and, according to her, there were some empty shelves in the store. Her family stocked up on enough supplies to last a week because they are wary of having prepared meals delivered.

“My circle of friends thinks it's not safe to order food because we're not sure who came in contact with it,” she said.

But even as she worried about what's next for her and her family, she pointed out that the people in Wuhan have it much worse. “They must be so scared. They have no way in and no way out.”

How to protect yourself and others

There is currently no vaccine to prevent 2019-nCoV infection. The best way to prevent infection is to avoid being exposed to this virus. There are everyday preventive actions to ward off the spread of respiratory viruses:

Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitiser.

Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.

Avoid close contact with people who are sick.

Stay home when you are sick.

Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash.

Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces.

Tips for travellers

Avoid contact with sick people.

Avoid animals (alive or dead), animal markets, and products that come from animals (such as uncooked meat).

See above tips on protecting yourself and others.

If you travelled to China in the last 14 days and feel sick with fever, cough, or difficulty breathing:

Seek medical care right away. Before you go to a doctor's office or emergency room, call ahead and tell them about your recent travel and your symptoms.

Avoid contact with others.

Do not travel while sick.

See above tips on protecting yourself and others.


There is no specific antiviral treatment recommended for 2019-nCoV infection. People infected with 2019-nCoV should receive supportive care to help relieve symptoms. For severe cases, treatment should include care to support vital organ functions.

People who think they may have been exposed to 2019-nCoV should contact their health care provider immediately.

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