CORONAVIRUS: Guyanese students in China tell their stories

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Stephen Seeraj and Bianca Phillips
Stephen Seeraj and Bianca Phillips

By: Devina Samaroo

Stephen Seeraj, 25, and Bianca Phillips, 24, are two Guyanese students currently in China amid the deadly coronavirus outbreak, one of the country’s biggest public-health crises which has already killed hundreds of people.

Seeraj, a student of the Nanjing Medical University, acknowledged that while the situation is troubling, there currently is no need to be alarmed.

“I wouldn’t say I am scared but I am alert,” he said during an interview with this publication.

The global death toll has surpassed 500, with two reported deaths outside mainland China. Over 24,000 persons are infected, majority in China.

Nanjing is about 330 miles from Wuhan, where the outbreak started. [Source: Google Maps]
Nanjing, where there are Guyanese students, is about 330 miles from Wuhan, where the outbreak started.

And, like many other Chinese cities, Nanjing has stepped up efforts to control the spread of the virus which continues to sweep the country.

“When we got news of the virus and how quickly it was spreading, that’s when it got our attention…I started to take all necessary precautions: masks, hand sanitizers, disinfectants, etc,” Seeraj, a former Queens College student, explained.

Phillips, a 24-year-old medical student in the same city, says she too is not fearful.

“I’m not scared, I’m concerned but I’m also hopeful. I feel safe where I am, at this point in time,” the former St Stanislaus College valedictorian reasoned.

Nanjing University, China [Photo Credit: Stephen Seeraj]
Phillips, who attends the Southeast University in Nanjing, explained that her school is currently on lockdown.

“No one in or out!”

“An official notice was sent out stating that the semester will be pushed back and that students are asked to not return to school until further notice. If you do desire to travel or go home you must fill out a form seeking permission to do so,” she explained.

What challenges are they facing?

Having to live with limited contact with the outside world comes with many challenges.

For Seeraj, boredom often gets the best of him. He spends most of his days following the news and playing video games.

“Usually at this period, we would be on break for Chinese New Year and its usually a time where we would take the opportunity to meet and hang out. But in light of the virus, we are just staying inside, trying to keep away, trying to avoid contact with people as much as we can,” he explained.

The situation is no different for Phillips. “It’s weird because, during the semester, I usually can’t wait for the weekend to sleep in and have a day to myself but it’s a whole new ball game when you have to be in a room all day, every day, not allowed to leave. It feels confining and I can only sleep so much,” she explained, revealing that she has turned to yoga to help pass the time and keep her mental health in check.

Moreover, shops are closing earlier, goods— including masks – have become limited, and prices have increased.

Why don’t they go home?

While some governments are the world are evacuating their citizens, the Guyana Government has announced that it will not be doing so. In fact, the Minister of Public Service Tabitha Sarabo-Halley informed parents of those in China that it would be best for them to remain there.

Seeraj and Phillips agree.

“Many of my colleagues are looking to evacuate but I feel like the minute I step out of my room, the risk of me getting sick significantly increases. From my medical knowledge, I know that isolation is the best solution at this time and I’m leaning into and trusting that,” Phillips reasoned.

Seeraj posited: “You are able to control your environment. I thought about going home and the biggest thing that scared me was going to the airport and staying on the plane for more than 14 hours with over 200 people on the plane.”

He noted that his risk of contracting the virus might be higher. “So, I am not in any rush to get home, I feel safe.”

But Seeraj’s father, Dharamkumar, cannot help but worry. He told this publication that while he understands that reasoning behind staying in China, as a parent, he is wired to be concerned about his child, especially during this time of crisis.

Is Guyana prepared for the coronavirus?

While there are already cases of the coronavirus in the Americas (in the United States and Canada), the chances of the disease reaching the Caribbean are low, the Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA) had announced in January.

Cases of coronavirus outside of China. [Source: BBC]

For Guyana’s part, health officials have put systems in place to screen persons arriving in the country, particularly those who display signs of respiratory infections.

Additionally, authorities say persons arriving from China will most likely be denied entry into the country. This includes persons arriving in ships, with the country’s Maritime Department saying vessels with a recent travel history from Hubei will be denied entry.

The country’s main public health facility, the Georgetown Public Hospital, has already established an isolation area for suspected cases and officials at the various ports of entry have been trained to detect symptoms.

A national hotline number has also been established. Persons who develop flu-like symptoms after return to Guyana from China or another highly-affected country are asked to call 592-227-8683 ext 215.

According to the Center for Disease Control, the leading national public health institute of the United States, symptoms of coronavirus may appear in as few as 2 days or as long as 14 after exposure.

About the coronavirus. [Source: Al Jazeera]

Keep calm 

The current population of Guyanese in China remain unknown because apart from students on Government scholarships, there are persons in the country for various other reasons.
For those who are in the country during this time of crisis, Seeraj and Phillips are urging them to remain calm.

“It’s okay to be scared, being away from home is already difficult, being away from home and living through an epidemic is definitely scary,” Phillips acknowledged.

“Protect yourself and protect the people around you. Take the necessary precautions, check up on each other, and be hopeful. In our home away from home, we are all we have, each other,” she affirmed.