Coronavirus: home beckons for some Chinese working overseas but others say they’re happy to stay put

Kristin Huang

Mainland China might have reported its first day of zero domestic coronavirus cases since the outbreak began but that doesn’t mean Yu Jiahui, a Chinese national working in Germany, will be heading home just yet.

“It’s not wise to fly back at present,” said the 26-year-old, who works for an aerospace company.

“The flights are too expensive and you can’t ignore the fact you might get infected while you’re travelling.”

Since the Covid-19 outbreak was first reported in central China in December more than 214,000 people have been infected around the world and over 8,800 have been killed. What at first seemed to be a national problem is now a pandemic, and its epicentre has switched from Hubei province to western Europe.

Governments around the world have announced various plans to try and contain the spread of the disease, with US President Donald Trump on Wednesday signing into law a US$100 billion emergency aid package.

For the 35 million Chinese currently studying or working overseas the global health crisis has raised difficult questions about what to do for the best.

But Yu said he had made up his mind.

“I think staying where you are is the best solution amid the increasingly dangerous outbreak,” he said. “My company will [temporarily] close soon, and I have reduced the amount of time I spend going outside.”

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Yu is not alone in opting for the stay-put option.

A 25-year-old doctoral student at Cranfield University in England, who gave his name only as Stephen, said he too had decided to stay where he was.

“The pandemic has less influence on me than my imagination, as my university is located in a rural area with only a small population,” he said.

“And there are potential risks on the flight back to China as infected people might be heading home for treatment.”

Dominic Huang, a 25-year-old doctoral student researching quantum chemistry at Sheffield University in northern England, said that while he was aware of the pandemic, it had had only a limited impact on his day-to-day life as he was still able to do his work without having to go to the lab.

“My university cancelled all normal lessons on March 16, so the tutors switched to teaching online,” he said.

“I don’t plan to return [at present] as I also don’t want to create problems for China.”

Huang was referring to the new struggle China is now facing in keeping out imported cases – of which it added 34 on Thursday.

Jason Ren, a Chinese dentist who works in the southeastern United States, said that while he had no plans to leave simply to escape the spread of the disease, he was concerned that if the health crisis worsened the US medical system might collapse, which could spark social unrest.

Cindy Wu, a Taiwanese lawyer who works in Beijing, said that she was taking a pragmatic approach to the situation. She was set to fly back to the Chinese capital on Tuesday but cancelled her booking after the authorities there announced that all international arrivals would have to go into quarantine for 14 days.

“I weighed up all the advantages and disadvantages and decided to stay in Taiwan a bit longer until we can have a clearer policy,” she said.

She said she also felt safer in Taiwan than she would in mainland China.

“I don’t know where I would be taken to quarantine, whether it’s a small hotel with centralised air conditioning, or how much I would have to pay, or if I would have to stay with people from other countries that are more affected,” she said.

“While I understand the quarantine is necessary, I think staying in Taiwan is much safer.”

Unlike Wu, a Chinese translator, who gave her name only as Chen, made the decision to return to Beijing while she could after completing a business trip to the Ukrainian capital, Kiev.

Chen said she was set to return to Beijing on Wednesday, but after Ukraine announced it would close its border on Tuesday, she changed her ticket and caught the last flight out of the country on Monday, even though it meant transiting through Dubai and Singapore and would take several days.

“The route is quite time-consuming and there’s the danger of getting infected on the way,” she said.

She said she was also concerned about what might be waiting for her when she got back to Beijing.

“I was quite worried when I saw a few days earlier that all travellers arriving in Beijing will be quarantined at our own expense,” she said.

“I have an apartment in Beijing on my own and not sure if I will be able to afford it [the quarantine].”

Yi Ming says he will wear a protective suit for the journey back to China, specially decorated with some of his favourite things from home and abroad. Photo: Handout

But for Yi Ming, a 27-year-old master’s student majoring in illustration at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin, the decision to return home was an easy one.

“The university has begun teaching online and we can submit all our coursework via the internet, so I decided to return to China in advance, even though the ticket price is several times the normal price,” he said.

Nevertheless, Yi said he would wear a protective suit for the journey back to China, specially decorated with some of his favourite things from home and abroad in the hope it would keep him safe.

Additional reporting by Catherine Wong and Laura Zhou

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