‘We’re like refugees’: Americans departing virus-hit Wuhan criticize U.S. government response

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Some had been in the airport for 48 hours waiting for information, with speculation that flight authorizations had been delayed by Chinese authorities.

“Two planes have departed Wuhan en route to the United States,” a State Department spokesperson said.

For many of the hundreds of Americans at the airport, the evacuation had been a frustrating experience, compounded by the fact that the U.S. government had evacuated its consulate in Wuhan immediately after the city at the center of the deadly coronavirus outbreak went into lockdown.

“I think what the U.S. government failed to anticipate is the fact that their consular officers here probably have made a lot of local connections and wish it would have made it easier to coordinate everything,” said Chunlin Leonhard, a law professor at Loyola University who had been in China on a fellowship and had gone to visit relatives 250 miles outside Wuhan when the lockdown began.

“Because of their departure, everything is left to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, which is pretty far away and where they really don’t know the local conditions that well. I think that’s part of the reason why things have been so chaotic,” Leonhard said, estimating that she had 10 phone calls asking for the same information.

“I know they’re shorthanded and they are trying to get everything done,” she said. “But that they evacuated the Wuhan consulate, which really should have been at the forefront of helping the American citizens who are stuck here in Hubei.”

About 1,000 Americans were in Wuhan and the surrounding area when the city went into lockdown on Jan. 23, part of a Chinese government effort to contain the spread of a new coronavirus that began in the city.

The virus has since radiated out from Wuhan, infecting almost 25,000 people in China and killing more than 490. The majority of those have been in Wuhan or surrounding Hubei province.

Doctors say that the pneumonia-like virus is transmitted through respiratory droplets or fecal matter. There is also concern it may live on surfaces for some time, enabling transmission through contact.

The U.S government closed its consulate in Wuhan and evacuated its staff and their dependents last month, but it has been difficult for the other Americans in the city to get out.

Those difficulties have been compounded, some Americans in the city say, by a feeling that their government has deserted them.

“We’re like refugees here,” said one woman from New Jersey who was visiting family in Wuhan for the Lunar New Year holiday when she got trapped in the city. She spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect her family members there from Chinese government retribution. “It’s been so frustrating, mainly because of the lack of information,” she said.

Others at the airport, while grateful to be getting out, expressed similar sentiments.

“I’ve been sitting here with people and trying to encourage them, keep everybody’s spirits as up, but it’s hard,” said John McGrory, a writer from Columbus, Ohio, who has been living in Wuhan for six years. “The other day it hit me, you know, it hit me hard. I don’t think we really understand the toll that it takes on you.”

Acknowledging that the U.S. Embassy in China is under pressure, McGrory echoed concerns that the evacuation of the consulate had made it more difficult for the Americans in the city.

“I was a little taken aback by that. I was like, ‘Okay, you guys leave. What about the 1,000 Americans here? Who’s looking out for our best interests?’ ” he said.

Furthermore, they described scenes of chaos at the airport, with no officials there to help them and not even a sign indicating where to gather. This was in contrast to the Russian evacuation, where consular officials had set up an information desk with a Russian flag and had provided buses to bring Russian citizens through the checkpoints into the airport.

Americans described hours-long delays at the checkpoints to get through Chinese security.

Some had been in the airport since 4 a.m. local time on Monday, waiting for information about their flight. They were still there more than 48 hours later, and photos supplied by people at the airport showed vending machines empty except for a couple of juice boxes.

Scott Walker, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, said “the U.S. government is coordinating closely with the PRC government to deliver humanitarian assistance and to evacuate additional U.S. citizens from Wuhan,” using the abbreviation for the People’s Republic of China.

On Monday, on a trip to Uzbekistan, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that officials were “working through the details” of the evacuation. “We’re working closely and hand-in-hand with the Chinese government to try and resolve what is now this global epidemiological challenge,” he said.

But the Chinese government, like some of the Americans in the airport, is not impressed with the U.S. government’s decision to pull out staff from Wuhan, calling Washington’s response an “overreaction” that had unnecessarily alarmed people.

“The U.S. government hasn’t provided any substantive assistance to us, but it was the first to evacuate personnel from its consulate in Wuhan, the first to suggest partial withdrawal of its embassy staff, and the first to impose a travel ban on Chinese travelers,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Monday.

“What it has done could only create and spread fear, which is a very bad example,” she said, citing figures of how many people died in the U.S. each year from influenza, a number that is exponentially higher than the number of coronavirus deaths.

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