Twenty-year-old Anjeleena Stronach wasn’t worried about the hoo-ha people were making over a virus till the teacher in charge of the student group she belonged to sent a message on WeChat.
“There will be no bus between Tianjin and Beijing. If you want (to) go back to Sri Lanka you should take (an) airplane from Tianjin. And you should know where (you can) take your second plane to your country,” the message from Miss Lilly read.
By then several key cities in China were on lock down as the deadly coronavirus spread across mainland China.
Anjeleena was in Tianjin located about 1,150km from Wuhan where the virus broke out. According to reports, by Friday (31), there were 9,692 confirmed coronavirus cases with at least 213 deaths.
Anjeleena and a group of Sri Lankan students were in their hostel. Usually during this time of the year all students – foreign and local would be visiting their families or home-countries because of the Lunar New Year holiday.
The second-year student decided to stay back, in hopes of travelling to another city in China during the holiday.
Around mid-January nothing went as planned. Anjeleena first heard of the virus when she saw a few posters being shared on a WeChat group managed by a group of Sri Lankan students living in China. The posters that were published by the WHO explained how one can be careful.
She at first paid no heed. Then came another message by a fellow-student, “Be careful. Avoid public transport. Buy masks. Stay inside.”
“Usually there are 66 of us (Sri Lankan students) at the hostel, but at that time because of the holidays there were less than 20 of us. Most of the students were already in Sri Lanka,” Anjeleena said.
With the media-frenzy that revolved around the outbreak most of the remaining students panicked and returned to Sri Lanka. More and more deaths were being reported.“Wuhan confirms 136 new coronavirus related pneumonia cases, death toll rising to three,” media reported on January 20.
Another said, “British tourist infected by mystery bug feared to be coronavirus”.
Anjeleena read all of this through their WeChat group, her only source of news.
The group also shared a map depicting how the virus was spreading and a series of messages by a Dr. Yuen Kwok Yung who advised to wear masks and use antiseptic cleansers.
Anjeleena and her friends bought the masks. The students were actually enjoying these developments. With enough food to feed them for a short while (as they stocked up due to the festival days because the shops are generally closed during this time of the year) they had nothing to worry. They were planning to stay in and watch movies.
At home, her mother Roshi was the epitome of worry. She wanted to bring her daughter safely back to the country. One day she received a call from a mother of one of the girls who was staying in the same hostel as Anjeleena to talk about their children’s safety.
The next day she had already brought her child back to Sri Lanka. Anjeleena did not want to get back. Abstracts from the WeChat group,“There is another city closed. Do you know what city (it) is?”“Really?”“Yes?”“No?”Confused the students tried to make sense of it all. Meanwhile, Sri Lankan authorities were discussing ways to keep their nationals living in China safe.
The students were advised to stay indoors. Every morning a teacher came to check their temperatures. Roshi heard that most of the ground transportation had stopped and some airports were already closed. When cities started to lock down and Miss Lilly sent a message to the students, Anjeleena wanted to come home too.
“The best option to bring my child back was through Seoul because there were no direct flights from Tianjin to Sri Lanka,” Roshi said. Although the ticket cost her Rs. 138,000, her daughter’s safety was of the utmost importance to her. On January 28th morning Anjeleena was back in the country.
She does not know when she will be able to get back to China. “This was a very frightening experience for us. When I saw the news and saw how people were dying in China all I wanted to do was bring my daughter back,” Roshi said.
Aruna De Silva was also worried about the safety of his 26-year-old daughter who was caught in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak as she was stationed in Wuhan itself. She was among the 33 Sri Lankans who returned to the country on a special SriLankan Airlines charter flight yesterday.
“When I heard about the outbreak, I told her to go to Shanghai where my friends lived,” Aruna said. He wanted his daughter Sachithra Sandeepani to be with someone he could trust. But because of the festive hullabaloo, Sachithra thought it was safer to be in her room.
For the past eight days till Friday (31) she hasn’t left her room. With enough food and water, she was safe. Following discussions between the Sri Lankan and Chinese governments a charter flight was given clearance to land in Wuhan to bring the stranded Sri Lankans back to the country.
They were taken safely to the Diyathalawa Army Camp where they will be kept under surveillance.“During the past few days my wife and I did nothing but talk to our daughter all the time. We were also in constant contact with the Sri Lankan embassy in Beijing,” Aruna said. They are grateful to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and all other officials involved in helping to bring their daughter and 32 others back to the island safely.