Beijing is reviewing its options and the protocols involved in helping the 1.6 million school and college students studying in Europe and North America – a number close to the population of Philadelphia – to get home.
Many are either stranded in a third country as they rushed home to flee the raging coronavirus pandemic or wondering if they should remain or leave, with many running out of masks and medication or denied access to medical help.
Cadres from a number of ministries responsible for health, education, foreign affairs and civil aviation told a joint press conference on Thursday that there were more than 410,000 Chinese students in the United States alone, and the corresponding figures in Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia and New Zealand were 230,000, 220,000 and 280,000 respectively.
About 180,000 had already returned home since mid-February amid the lemming-like scramble to get tickets as the virus crept beyond China’s border and started to strike down people in the West. About 36 Chinese students overseas have already come down with Covid-19 so far.
Beijing’s official line remains that Chinese students should exercise prudence, take no chances and stay put for the sake of their studies and visas, unless there was a compelling reason to fly home.
Chinese media reported that Beijing would soon hand out 11 million masks and half a million personal hygiene kits to the students via its embassies, consulates and Chinese expats associations in about one week, as the cargo weighing 300 tons was already on its way to Italy, France, Germany, the US, Canada, Australia and other destinations on Air China and China Eastern jets.
Officials have also hinted that Beijing has an obligation to look after overseas Chinese, especially youngsters, and help them get home in the worst-case scenario if the contagion on both sides of the Atlantic continues to spiral out of control.
In that case, chartering flights to fly more than 1 million Chinese students home may become the biggest airlift Beijing has ever had to do.
The backdrop is Beijing’s sweeping mandate to seal off its border and close its airspace to keep the virus at bay, slashing international flights to a little more than 100 this week as services on numerous trunk routes are suspended and jets redirected and grounded.
In the latest development, a chartered flight operated by China Eastern will arrive at London’s Heathrow Airport on Thursday and about 180 Chinese pupils mostly aged below 18 will be flown to Jinan, the capital of the eastern Shandong province. There they will be quarantined for two weeks after touching down before their anxious parents can pick them up, according to Xinhua and China News Service.
Beijing’s embassy and consulates in London, Manchester, Edinburgh and Belfast are said to be coordinating more such evacuation flights for underage students scheduled for the next few weeks. Chinese diplomats in Canada are also collecting information from pupils who want to return home.
Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunyin also confirmed on Wednesday that more flights would be arranged.
It was also revealed that parents will have to pay double for a ticket and guardians must also sign a disclaimer of responsibility for infections or other potential risks and danger throughout each flight.
There are about 15,000 underage students from China enrolled in boarding schools across Britain and they may have nowhere to go after all the kindergartens, elementary and secondary schools in the virus-hit country were shut on March 20.
Chinese parents have been piling pressure on Beijing to fly them home as they are convinced that the epidemic in China has receded. Health screening points and inspection paramedics are being marshaled away from Wuhan, the initial epicenter of the outbreak, and into international terminals at airports in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and others to deal with a surge in imported cases as the front line of defense shifts.
Patriotic sentiments are also on the rise among the masses as they subscribe to the discourse that despite the early “suboptimal” response to the emerging respiratory disease mainly by local officials in Wuhan and the rest of Hubei province, the virtues of China’s political and social systems and nationwide mobilization have stood the test and contrasted favorably with the “botched” handling of the fast-deteriorating situations from the UK to the US.
China’s draconian city and community lockdowns and travel curbs have seen the official number of confirmed cases still being treated drop to 2,826 as of Thursday. The total tally of infections and mortalities across Italy and the US have surpassed China’s official records, although there are constant doubts about the reliability of China’s figures.
The footage of Chinese President Xi Jinping not wearing a mask when inspecting several locations in the eastern port city of Ningbo earlier this week has also boosted people’s confidence that the plague may have already been eradicated.
Parents with children stuck overseas are now scrabbling to book seats for them to return, triggering some proud Chinese netizens to call it a race for tickets to board a China-bound Noah’s Ark amid a world-engulfing health crisis.
They welcome the government taking the initiative to charter more flights, even though seats are not free of charge, and some told Xinhua that they would reconsider if their kids should go abroad to study again as the crisis had let them witness the “strength and care” of the nation.