In China, 304 people have died in the coronavirus outbreak. PHOTO/GETTY IMAGES
Former Rathkeale student in the middle of coronavirus outbreak
A Wairarapa man under lockdown in China says the coronavirus outbreak is bigger than the country’s government admits and that it must be “hell” for travellers.
John Beijen, 21, is studying in the city of Xiamen but has been forced into staying at a hotel outside the city as the government shut down major cities and public transport to try to prevent the virus spreading.
Xiamen, in Fujian province, is 775km southeast of Wuhan City, Hubei province, which is the centre of the outbreak.
Beijen, a former Rathkeale College student from Martinborough, has been in China for 18 months, studying and translating.
His father, Alex, is South Wairarapa’s mayor.
The World Health Organisation has declared the virus a global emergency.
The latest WHO update on Sunday said there had been 14,557 confirmed cases worldwide.
In China, 304 people had died, from 14,411 confirmed cases.
In the rest of the world, there were now 146 confirmed cases in 23 countries.
A 44-year-old man from China died in the Philippines on Sunday.
New Zealand officials have put further restrictions on travellers entering from China this week.
From Monday, all foreign nationals travelling from China or transiting through China would be banned from entering New Zealand.
New Zealanders coming home from China under their own steam would be allowed in but must isolate themselves for 14 days at home.
Beijen said the cordons had become tighter as the outbreak spread.
He said he had been using a park neighbouring the hotel but that was now closed.
“Before, I’d maybe go out for about an hour, just to get some sun. But now they’ve cordoned that off. So essentially, I can go to the supermarket or stay in my hotel. You cherish the moments to get out.”
Beijen said the government had banned non-Chinese nationals from specific hotels, and hotels that could accept foreigners were turning them away.
He said his ability to speak Chinese had helped him find a place to stay once Xiamen was closed off.
The virus originated in an illegal wildlife market in the city of Wuhan.
Wuhan, a city of more than eight million people, is known as a travel hub in central China and is nicknamed “China’s Thoroughfare”.
Beijen said the timing of the outbreak, around the spring festival – Chinese New Year – added to the complexity.
The festival is said to be the world’s biggest human migration as people return home to celebrate.
Official figures published last week said about 75,000 people had become infected.
But Beijen said it was likely to be much more.
“One of my friend’s mothers is an official there, and she told me that roughly 10 per cent of the population in that city have got it, that’s why it’s been locked down. It’s a lot bigger that what they’re saying.”
Beijen said there was a lot of misinformation and misunderstanding about the disease.
He had friends in different provinces in China who were telling him different things from the official statistics. He said, as a foreigner, he found the response “interesting”.
“I can imagine it would be hard to deal with if you couldn’t speak Chinese.
“I can read Chinese. I can read the notices. But if you were a traveller, it would be hell.”
Local people were saying this outbreak was much bigger than the 2003 Sars outbreak.
Sars caused 774 deaths in 17 countries, with more than 8000 reported cases.
“I think I’ve handled it a lot better than a lot of Chinese people have.
“I think New Zealanders, we take more open view on this kind of thing.
“Although I’m cooped up inside, it’s more an opportunity to study, or relax, that kind of thing.
“I know a lot of people are just not handling it well. Lots of people are going stir crazy. They just don’t know what to do with themselves.”
Beijen and his family felt it was safer to remain where he was than attempt to come home.
“As parents, we are very concerned about his proximity to the outbreak but consider the option of him staying put in isolation is better than attempting to repatriate him,” Beijen’s father, Alex, said.
“Going through at least two airports to get home probably exposes him to more danger than remaining where he is.
“He is registered with MFAT [Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade] as a New Zealand national abroad and we are assessing the situation as it develops.”