SINGAPORE — Gary Lim, 40, could have been among the 92 Singaporeans who flew home from Wuhan on Thursday (30 January) morning, amid the worsening coronavirus outbreak in China.
Lim came to Wuhan on 21 January to celebrate the Lunar New Year with his in-laws in Yingcheng, his 28-year-old wife’s hometown, located about 100 km away from Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak.
Two days later, Wuhan became the first of at least 17 cities in Hubei province to be locked down by the Chinese authorities in an attempt to curb the spread of the virus - Yingcheng is also on the list.
On Wednesday, the couple were scheduled to leave on a special Scoot flight arranged by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), ferrying Singaporeans home. But in the afternoon, MFA’s consular officers told them that according to an order from local authorities, Chinese citizens would not be allowed to leave the country, even if they are Singapore permanent residents.
So Lim, who works in the insurance industry, stayed on. “My wife kept asking me to go back, but you are facing a crisis and (if) one person goes for safety and leaves the other party over there, you don’t feel good. Husband and wife should be together,” Lim told Yahoo News Singapore over a chat app.
He added, “What if the situation worsens and I can’t see her again?”
Andrew Ang, a 36-year-old Singaporean currently in Huanggang, has also chosen to stay put to be with his 37-year-old wife, who is a resident of the city about 75km from Wuhan, and their two young children. The city is also under lockdown.
Ang reckons that there are at least 30 other individuals and families facing a similar plight, based on conversations in a chat group set up by MFA officials. Traveling from Hong Kong, Ang arrived with his family in Huanggang via Wuhan on 20 January, with plans to leave for Singapore on 3 February via a Scoot flight.
However, the budget airline has since cancelled all flights between Wuhan and Singapore until the end of March. “We also looked for the option of travelling to other provinces, but it doesn’t seem possible. (MFA officials) told us we would have to be quarantined and there is also no guarantee that we can cross the border,” said Ang.
Then came the news that his wife would be unable to leave China. “I tried to clarify if there was any opportunity for them to negotiate, but they said no, it’s an order from the China government,” said Ang, who works in retail sales.
With the latest update on Thursday from MFA officials - “At the moment, we have no plans to mount further such flights to Singapore. Please monitor news from the official Chinese and Hubei government sources for latest updates on the travel restrictions” - the Lims and the Angs are stuck for now.
MFA said that the 92 Singaporeans had returned home via Scoot flight TR121. A notice from Chinese provincial authorities seen by Yahoo News Singapore showed that 222 people from Singapore had been approved to leave Wuhan but it did not specify a period.
Yahoo News Singapore has sent queries to MFA on the number of Singaporeans who are still in Hubei and whether there are plans to bring them home.
‘Vast majority’ of Singaporeans have returned
At a media briefing on Thursday, National Development Minister Lawrence Wong told reporters that the “vast majority” of Singaporeans in Hubei are back home.
“The ones remaining, as I said before, we are in touch with all of them, to ensure their welfare. Some are symptomatic and have to stay quarantined in China itself, but we are in touch with all of them.”
When asked how many Singaporeans were still in Hubei, Wong did not elaborate.
Asked on Friday by Yahoo News Singapore about the status of Singaporeans like Ang and Lim with China spouses or relatives, Wong would only say that it was a “not so straightforward situation”.
“We will be happy for the Singaporean to be returned but whether or not the non-Singaporean can exit, and the PRC national can leave, that’s not quite within our jurisdiction.”
He added, “But we will certainly work with the Chinese authorities to see, under these circumstances, what’s the best way to manage and what’s the best way to ensure that the well-being of Singaporeans and their family members is taken care.”
Asked repeatedly about the number of Singaporeans still in Hubei, Wong would only say, “I don’t have the figures with me now.”
For now, Ang and Lim are coping well while they stay in the respective villages of their in-laws. The duo reported that their families had stocked up for the Lunar New Year and have plenty of food and drinks. Ang’s father-in-law even owns a small farm with “plenty of vegetables”.
However, their movements are heavily restricted. “My wife’s cousin tried to go out and buy medicine, but the roads were closed and they put up concrete barriers to block the exit of the village,” said Ang.
Lim said that his wife’s village had already voluntarily barricaded the entrance to prevent outsiders from entering - but provincial authorities have since blocked the roads leading to the village as well. “My wife wanted to drive to the city (about 20km away) to buy instant noodles but they told her: you can go out but you cannot come back in.”
It has been a “weird” festive season, said Lim. “During the first three days of the new year, we all remained indoors. There was no reunion dinner or visiting relatives.”
Over at Ang’s village, neighbours chat at a distance for fear of possible infection, even though there have been no cases in the area. Ang said, “It’s quiet now, There are usually a lot of people visiting for the new year, but because of the lockdown, many in the city are not able to come back.”
Lim said, “They are pretty worried back home, but I have assured them that I am pretty safe.”