The father, struggling to keep his composure, turned away from the screen as his face reddened.
Their son, Azlan Nihar, is one of 800 Pakistani students stranded in Wuhan whom the government in Islamabad is refusing to evacuate. While other countries have evacuated their citizens from the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, officials in Islamabad said a similar move by Pakistan would be “irresponsible” because the country lacks the ability to prevent the spread of the virus and treat those infected.
Four Pakistani students in Wuhan have tested positive for the coronavirus.
The decision reflects the shortcomings of Pakistan’s health-care system, which has long struggled with limited resources and entrenched corruption. The country has a dismal record of containing viral outbreaks and is one of the few in the world still battling polio, with more than 130 people infected in 2019. Dengue fever infected more than 47,000 last year.
“We will not let our son be sacrificed for others. Our government is doing this to sacrifice [him] for others,” said Nihar’s mother, Azra, referring to the government’s inability to quarantine people the way other countries have after evacuating them from Wuhan.
Even though it is not bringing its citizens out of Wuhan, Pakistan has resumed flights to and from other cities in China. Pakistan’s Health Ministry justified the move with assurances that all passengers would be screened for the coronavirus before boarding planes in China and upon landing in Pakistan.
Pakistan’s top health official, Zafar Mirza, defended the decision not to evacuate, saying in an interview that it is “good for the country and for the students there, too.” He said that China is containing the virus.
“Our people are properly taken care of,” he said. “We want good for them, and we are doing what’s best for them. We believe any irresponsible act could lead to the spread of virus.”
Families of the stranded students have protested the decision not to evacuate, as have opposition politicians.
“The government should immediately bring our students back except those affected by the virus,” opposition lawmaker Khawaja Muhammad Asif said during a televised parliamentary session Thursday. “They should be brought back, and they can be tested again and kept in quarantine for some time.”
But an editorial in Dawn, a leading newspaper here, suggested many Pakistanis greeted the decision with relief.
“While acknowledging the distress of the stranded Pakistanis and the fact that they should have been provided government assistance much earlier, pragmatism must dictate the state’s response,” the editorial said, adding that a coronavirus outbreak in Pakistan would be devastating.
“It is regrettable that facilities in this country are not equal to the task of properly managing quarantine requirements, an important aspect of a well-functioning health system,” the editorial said.
Zeeshan Abbasi, 23, had been studying Chinese in Wuhan when the coronavirus prompted officials to shut down the city. He has since been confined to a small room in his dormitory. The only people permitted to come and go are Chinese officials who drop off food and perform daily medical checkups on the students, according to his brother, Farhan Abbasi.
Before the virus outbreak, Zeeshan’s studies in China were a point of pride for his family. He had planned to stay for his graduate studies before returning to Pakistan to work. Now he says he feels trapped and just wants to return home immediately, according to his family members.
“I can see the deep negative impact on their minds. They are in isolation from their families and the entire world,” said Farhan, 34, who keeps in touch with Zeeshan through messaging apps and video phone calls. Each day, he said, his family fears for Zeeshan’s health as conditions in Wuhan deteriorate.
“This agony is beyond explanation,” Farhan said.
Hussain reported from Islamabad. Susannah George in Islamabad contributed to this report.