The fast-spreading coronavirus in China is posing a serious challenge to India, especially, the possibility of evacuating a large number of Indians if the situation continues to worsen.
There are close to 50,000 Indians living and working in different parts of China. Many of them are also studying in various Chinese universities.
Over 700 Indian students, most of them studying medicine, are in Wuhan, the city from where the coronavirus is reported to have originated. Some are also enrolled in universities in the surrounding areas of Hubei province. Most of them had already left because of the Chinese Lunar festival—China’s New Year holidays. But around 250-300 are reported to be stranded in the city and its outskirts.
The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) and the Indian embassy in Beijing are keeping a close watch on the evolving situation. The MEA spokesperson Raveesh Kumar said, “All options are being examined including, consultations with the Chinese authorities to provide relief” to the Indian nationals.
So far, there has been no report of any Indian being affected by the virus.
However, there is now a global alarm over the outbreak of the deadly new virus. So far, 80 people have died, and the virus has affected nearly 2700 people over 20 provinces and major cities in China, including Beijing and Shanghai. Confirmed cases were also reported from Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, United States, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
As the Chinese authorities race to halt the spread of coronavirus, the government has extended travel ban on public transport to several cities. There has been a lockdown in Wuhan which has been the focus of current outbreak.
People line up to buy face masks at a pharmacy in Shanghai. (AP Photo)
Authorities in Wuhan and 11 adjoining cities in Hubei province have closed train and bus routes. There are roadblocks preventing most private cars from leaving Wuhan and many markets have also been closed, according to news reports.
Army medics and dozens of state-owned companies have been enlisted in relief efforts. One construction group has deployed dozens of diggers to build a quarantine hospital with 1000 beds on the outskirts of Wuhan by next month.
Some of China’s biggest tourist attraction, the Forbidden City, the summer palace and parts of the Great Wall in Beijing have been closed as part of the government’s effort to deal with the coronavirus.
The S&P Global Ratings—the credit rating agency – has warned that if the situation worsens it can knock 1.2 percentage points of China’s economic growth. At 6.1 per cent in 2019, China has registered its slowest growth in nearly three decades.
The US Consulate in Wuhan will evacuate its personnel and some private citizens aboard a charter flight Tuesday. A notice from the embassy in Beijing said there would be limited capacity to transport US citizens on the flight that will proceed directly to San Francisco.
Reports have also begun to circulate on social media that other western governments were making plans to evacuate their stranded nationals from Wuhan and other parts of China. Though none of them have so far been verified, there is a possibility that anxious family members may start putting pressure on the government to evacuate Indian nationals from the affected areas.
“None of the countries have started moving their people out of China. However, our greatest worry is that such reports will also put pressure on us to evacuate Indians not only in Wuhan but also from other parts of China,” a senior Indian diplomat said.
In 2003, during the outbreak of the SARS virus that had killed 800 people, the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government in Delhi had sent a delegation to Beijing headed by its defence minister, George Fernandes. This was at a time when most western countries and their allies in the region were keeping away from undertaking any official visit to China.
The show of solidarity by India had gone down well with the Chinese leadership at the time of their crisis. As China faces a fresh challenge in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, India may have to strike a diplomatic balance. While it has to ensure the safety of the Indian nationals in China, especially the stranded students in Wuhan, it cannot be seen hitting the panic-button in rushing to evacuate its national from China and send out a signal that it has no confidence in the Chinese government’s ability to deal with the crisis.
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