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Teachers trapped in Wuhan as evacuation ends

As we go to press, the first foreign teachers flown home from Wuhan are leaving quarantine and Western governments have announced the end of evacuation flights from the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak, bringing to a close what is believed to be the biggest-ever evacuation of expatriate English speaking teachers in peacetime.

Some 1,000 native English speakers are estimated to have been teaching in the Chinese city when the epidemic began. Many have been unable to leave, others have chosen to stay.

Around 800 Americans had been flown out by February 10, one has since tested positive for coronavirus. A 60-year-old US citizen who remained in Wuhan has died from the disease.

US Teacher Doug Perez expressed frustration at the short notice given of flights evacuating around 200 US nationals to March Air Reserve Base, California, in February – apparently after US consular staff had themselves already left.

Perez chose to remain with his Chinese-national wife and his dog. He told NBC News many colleagues had stayed because, “we can’t leave our loved ones.”

By the beginning of the second week in February, 500 Australians and New Zealanders had been evacuated. Australians arriving from Wuhan are quarantined on remote Christmas Island, a thousand miles from the mainland – at their own expense.

At the time of the first flight, Australian English teacher Tim McLean was “trapped” in the city of Ezhou in Hubei Province with his Chinese partner. With no functioning public transport, he was unable to travel to the provincial capital of Wuhan for the evacuation.

When the UK chartered the first plane to evacuate its nationals at the beginning of February, British-Canadian teacher Tom Williams was still awaiting confirmation on whether his Canadian wife and son could join the flight.

The first UK flight carried 83 British nationals. Three Irish nationals were also onboard, including psychology teacher Ben Kavanagh, one of several expat teachers who posted videos of their rare trips outdoors during their “lockdown” in Wuhan. His footage showed deserted streets except for pharmacies, which had queues going out of the door.

The second and final UK flight has now landed, carrying around 200 people. All the evacuees have now been quarantined at Arrowe Park Hospital in Wirral, northwest England.

One of several unnamed English teachers at Arrowe Park told the Guardian newspaper their airport bus almost didn’t make it through a People’s Liberation Army roadblock. TES reported that at least one British international school teacher at Arrowe Park is expected to teach online to Chinese students from midnight to 8am Greenwich Mean Time.

Other British teachers chose to remain. Steffan Atherton stayed at his school in Fuzhou with his Peruvian wife and infant son, after consular officials told him they couldn’t join him on the first evacuation flight

Others have found themselves trapped. Michael Mireku remains stranded in Beijing as his wife and son’s passports were being renewed at the UK embassy, which reportedly wasn’t answering his calls.

Concerns also remain about South African nationals. In late January, 23-year-old South African teacher Jessika Baling, told the Mirror Online she was “trapped” in her apartment, too afraid to go out. Other South Africans are still reported to be calling for their government to evacuate them. However, on 29 January health minister Zweli Mkhize told the South African press no such evacuation was deemed necessary.

Image courtesy of B.ZHOU / SHUTTERSTOCK
Matt Salusbury
Matt Salusbury
MATT SALUSBURY, news editor and journalist, has worked for EL Gazette since 2007. He is also joint Chair of the London Freelance Branch of the National Union of Journalists and co-edits its newsletter, the Freelance. He taught English language for 15 years in the Netherlands, in Turkey, in a North London further education college and now as an English for Academic Purposes tutor, most recently at the London School of Economics. He is a native English speaker and is also fluent in Dutch.
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