'The girl who cracked': Quarantine chronicles of a South African student in Wuhan

2020-03-09 08:01
A health worker dressed in protective suit at a coronavirus isolation ward. (Photo by Dennis Sigwe/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

A health worker dressed in protective suit at a coronavirus isolation ward. (Photo by Dennis Sigwe/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

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I could hear muffled screams coming from somewhere in the building.

I live in one of three blocks of student flats in the middle of Wuhan, the city at the epicentre of the Covid-19 outbreak.

The strange noises were coming from close by, but I just carried on with what I was doing.

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If only I had known.

We had been locked down and isolated in our rooms since the end of January.

"A girl just cracked," someone texted me.  

"Do we know her?" I asked.


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It's Olivia*, he said. My heart sank. She was a fellow student from Africa and a close friend of mine.

The day before, one of Olivia's best friends had been taken away by Chinese government officials. The young woman had tested positive for the new coronavirus.

Her friend was taken to the hospital, and every inch of the girl's room was sanitised. So were the rooms of everyone in that friendship group.

That group did everything together, even when we were supposed to be in isolation. But they were ordered to stop socialising immediately.

Olivia couldn't handle the loneliness.

The next time the friendship group saw each other again was when they were called to calm Olivia down.

She was running around the residence, naked, and wailing. They covered her in a blanket and took her back to her room.

Then, Olivia disappeared.

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We don't know if she's in hospital, we were never told whether she tested positive for the coronavirus.

"Respond with a 'y' if you're still in Wuhan," one of the teachers on our student group chat asked.

"Y," Olivia's text read.


We were excited, because it gave us hope that she was still around here. But when you message her personally, she doesn't respond.

When I'm lying on my bed trying to pass the time, I wonder how she's doing. Maybe she was threatened.

I'm so sick of the food they give us, it's the same thing every day - greyish chicken, stodgy rice and wilted vegetables.

Since Olivia disappeared, more and more people are being diagnosed with coronavirus in the rooms around me. The hospitals are full, people say, so some sick people are being treated in their rooms.

I feel fine and I'm ready to leave.

I can't believe they're keeping us with sick people. One of them is on the same floor as me.

I wonder how many more days it will take before I'm back home.

I would love some Spur Ribs.

*Not her real name.

This is the first in a series of first-hand accounts from inside the epicentre of the new coronavirus outbreak called "Quarantine Chronicles". Joan van Dyk compiled this entry from an extensive telephonic interview with a South African in China, who spoke on condition of anonymity, and was dubbed "Student from Wuhan".

This story was produced by the Bhekisisa Centre for Health Journalism. Subscribe to the newsletter.

Read more on:    china  |  coronavirus

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