A little over a month ago, when Tanrui Li went home to visit his family for Chinese Lunar New Year, there didn’t seem to be much reason to worry. ‘Before I went to Wuhan, I heard about a new kind of pneumonia’, he writes in an email. ‘But I didn’t think it would be a big issue. Just some people getting the flu, like many people get the flu this time of the year.’
So the Dutch Studies student booked a ticket to China on January 17. ‘Chinese New Year is like Christmas in Western countries’, he explains, ‘so I wanted to be with my family.’
‘At the very beginning after I arrived, everything was normal, but the situation changed very rapidly. Every day, the media said the epidemic was getting worse, and my mother suggested that I shouldn’t go out.’
‘Even at that time, my family and I didn’t think it would become so severe. Until one morning the news came that the whole city had been blockaded, and no one was allowed to go out. That morning, until 10 am, people could still run from the city, but I missed that chance. So now I can’t leave the city. The airport and train stations are closed and the highways are shut down. There are no private vehicles allowed. So basically, there is no way to leave the city. I considered riding a bike, but that was too dangerous at the time.’
He contacted the Dutch embassy, to see if he could get on the evacuation plane to the Netherlands, but was rejected because of his Chinese nationality. So now, there’s a good chance he won’t make it back to Leiden on time to finish his degree.
‘The deadline the university set for me to go back to the course is March 2, or I have to re-enroll in September, and that will cost me a lot of money. I have no idea when I can go back. The situation here is still not clear, there are more patients every day.’
‘Even if I could go back to the Netherlands on time, I have to be isolated for fourteen days and will miss the deadline.’ Everyone who is evacuated from Wuhan has to spend two weeks in isolation as a precaution. ‘I don’t want to spread the virus. Most Chinese people have the same idea, so that is the reason why we choose to wear masks when we go out. But I heard some people are afraid of people with masks, which upsets me.’
Meanwhile, he has nowhere to go. ‘My family and I are good. We have stayed home for more than ten days, and only my mom has gone out to buy food. These days, she has decided not to go out so we use a delivery service – and we are very grateful for their work in this situation. We have stored lots of daily supplies, so nothing to worry about here.’
‘It is just too boring to stay at home for such a long time. We just watch series, play video games and read books every day.’
‘As for the situation in Wuhan: I don’t really know how it’s going with the patients. The news said the government is doing their best to take care of them, and indeed two big hospitals have been built in several days. But also, there is gossip that some patients can’t find hospitals that accept them because everything is full.’
Li follows both Chinese and international media. It’s hard to see which is closer to the truth, he writes. ‘When it comes to information from the media, I always believe one rule: If a man has two watches, he can never know the right time. Indeed, the Chinese media prefer to report positive things. Sometimes I use a VPN to search for news on YouTube and some other foreign media, and some of them are very negative. So I think the most difficult thing is not to receive information, but to tell which is true, or closer to the truth.’
‘There is also gossip on our social media, like WeChat and Weibo, but still I cannot tell what is true.’
‘What makes me sad is the discrimination. Some Chinese people from other cities or provinces think that it was us, the Wuhanese, who brought the virus everywhere. I heard lots of hotels do not allow people with a Wuhan-issued ID-card to check in, even if they haven’t been in Wuhan.’
‘What’s worse is that some Western people and media attack China, and all Chinese people. There was a Dutch DJ who said something very racist, and I read that a Chinese woman was attacked in Germany because she was wearing a mask.’
Leiden University has offered Li financial compensation, in case he has to re-enroll next year, spokesperson Caroline van Overbeeke confirms: ‘This is a very unfortunate situation for him, that he has no control over. As for the potential study delay: it is very unclear when this student can return to class, and there is also the mandatory quarantine of two weeks when he returns. So it seems likely his studies will be delayed.’ For reasons of privacy, she can’t comment on the details of the financial compensation.
‘Of course we are doing our best to accommodate this as much as we can.’ How exactly, is still unclear. ‘And it depends on the circumstances and time of his return’.
Hilde de Weerdt, professor of Chinese History, Tweeted last week about a question she received from a colleague, who was worried about his health. He wanted to know if Leiden University ‘had come up with a policy “for courses with Chinese students” in light of the coronavirus. He did not want to jeopardize his own health. For the record: Chinese students are not per se contagious’, she wrote on Twitter.
This kind of questions are around, she replied in an email with questions from Mare. ‘I think there is some unrest, which is not surprising. Things like this give extra stress, especially to those who already feel vulnerable.’
There were no bad intentions behind this particular request, she says: ‘It came from understandable health concerns and was not intended negatively. I sent the guidelines provided by the Leiden University Security Office, that contain a lot of information, but also pointed out that pointing out a national or racial group as risk factor is not appropriate.’
‘I told him that it is not based on facts, because the risk comes from a diverse group: Dutch and international students, colleagues who travel in that region, or those who are in close contact with the Chinese business community, for example, when most Chinese students don’t go to China in this period.’