ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — On Thursday, for the first time in a week, 26-year-old Abdullah left his small dorm room at the Wuhan University of Technology in China to buy fruit and spices to cook the food of his native Pakistan.
As Wuhan is gripped by the coronavirus outbreak, Abdullah and hundreds of Pakistani students are locked down on their campuses, barred by university officials from leaving for days at a time, phone and WeChat messages their only link to the dire situation outside their doors.
“I spend almost 10 hours a day on the phone talking to my family and friends back in Pakistan,” said the 26-year-old doctoral student, who asked that his full name not be used for fear of reprisals from either his government or China’s. “There is nothing to do in this small room. I fear that I’ll go mad in the next few days.”
While more than 20 countries have evacuated their nationals from Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak that has sickened more than 60,000 people worldwide since December, Pakistan has resisted calls to bring home several hundred increasingly worried citizens, many of them students.
For Prime Minister Imran Khan, the decision hinges on health as well as politics.
Officials say Pakistan lacks the capacity to deal with an epidemic if large numbers of infected people reach its shores. But China is also one of Pakistan’s most important allies and benefactors, and analysts say that Khan is attempting to show solidarity with Chinese leader Xi Jinping by insisting Pakistani students are safe and well cared for in Wuhan.
“Pakistan stands with the people & govt of China in their difficult & trying time and it will always stand by them,” Khan tweeted Wednesday. “We will be extending every material & moral support to China just as China has always stood by us during all our times of trial and tribulation.”
Khan said he had instructed his foreign affairs ministry “to do everything possible for our students who are stuck in Wuhan,” but officials said that would not include bringing them home. Flights from China to Pakistan are operating, but students cannot leave Wuhan without government approval.
A foreign ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the government’s thinking, said that keeping the students in Wuhan was “in the best interests of the students and Pakistan,” and added that the United Nations World Health Organization had said that evacuations were not necessary.
“We all know the health infrastructure in Pakistan is not capable of dealing with such epidemics,” the official said. “It could have devastating implications for Pakistan and families of the students if some infected students come back.”
The United States, Canada, Singapore, the Philippines, Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and Thailand are among the countries that have flown citizens home from parts of China that have been hit by the outbreak. Pakistan and Cambodia, another country with close ties to Beijing, stand out for saying they will not carry out evacuations.