AU PhD student in quarantine in Marseille after evacuation from Wuhan

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PhD student Juan Pablo Pacheco Esnal is in quarantine outside Marseille right now. He and his French-Uruguayan girlfriend were among the evacuees flown out of from Wuhan by the French authorities, and are currently under observation for a two-week quarantine at a holiday resort. Juan Pablo spent the previous five months doing research in Wuhan, the Chinese city where the coronavirus outbreak began. This is his story –from the first rumors of an outbreak to a last-minute escape on a plane to France

2020.02.07 | Juan Pablo Pacheco Esnal, PhD student, Department of Bioscience, AU

Juan Pablo Pacheco Esnal, PhD student at the Department of Bioscience at AU and Sino-Danish Center is in quarantine outside Marseille right now after being evacuated from Wuhan, China. Photo: Private and Colourbox

I went to Wuhan with my girlfriend last September for a 6-month stay to work at the Wuhan Botanical Garden, a research center of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. As part of my PhD in bioscience at Aarhus University and Sino Danish Center, I ran an experiment there about the effect of small omnivorous fish on freshwater microalgae, and their responses to warming and eutrophication. Because I had previously worked in Denmark with some of the Chinese researchers from Wuhan I was going to be working with there, we went to Wuhan confident that we would be welcome and helped by our local friends.

Wuhan, China. Photo: Colourbox

Learned about the outbreak in December 

From our arrival at Wuhan Airport, our Chinese friends were always there for us, and during the months we spent in Wuhan, in addition to working together and despite the obvious cultural differences, we built a very nice friendship with them. As the experiment was highly time-consuming, I had almost no free time during this period. But we dedicated every occasion we could to gathering with our friends: going out for dinner, to the gym together, and trying many different kinds of baijiu (a strong liquor distilled from grain, the national drink of China, ed.) to find out which one was the least terrible. During one of these dinners in December, we learned about this novel virus from an animal market, but at that time, we didn’t suspect the magnitude of the outbreak.

Chinese friend: 'Hurry up and go food shopping – all public transport closes at 10am!’ 

After finishing my experiment and processing almost every sample, while I was having breakfast one morning, I got a phone call from one of our friends from the lab. It was during the Chinese New Year holidays and the lab had been empty the whole week, so I was quite surprised to get this early call. My friend told me that public transport would stop running at 10 am, and that it was necessary to stock up as much as possible on food from the supermarket because quarantine had been declared in the city to stop the spread of the virus, and nobody knew how long it would last. At that time, I just thought ‘ok, good to know so I don’t get stranded at the botanical garden’, but I had no idea what was actually coming. 

Can you trust the official information about the outbreak?

With the long days of lab work, I had missed out on the seriousness of the information that had begun to circulate in Chinese media about the increase in the number of infections and deaths. Much had changed since the first information about the virus. At the beginning, it was believed that the virus had only spread to people who had been to an animal market on the other side of the river, and although it was something new, we had been told that there was no risk of person-to-person contagion because the first cases had been isolated and that market had been closed. Then, suddenly, we learned that the virus had actually spread a lot and could already spread from person to person. Naturally, this led us to mistrust the ‘official’ information that our friends helped us to translate.

Thousands escaped the city before public transportation was shut down 

In the days before the outbreak, many people from Wuhan had already left the city to spend their holiday with their families. For many of them, this is the only time of the year when they can see their families. The measure of preventing long-distance transportation by closing bus stations, trains and the airport came too late with the quarantine. In the moments before the train stations closed, thousands of people rushed to leave the city to avoid quarantine and move to a safe place. By then, millions had already left Wuhan and many others had passed through the city in the previous days. Next, private cars were banned in addition to public transportation. The only authorized form of transportation were special taxis designed to take people to hospitals, and of course ambulances. Concern and uncertainty were increasing, as nobody knew for certain which new measures might be implemented by the authorities.

Home quarantine in Wuhan 

For my girlfriend and me, the quarantine meant buying as much as we could at the supermarket and staying at home indefinitely to minimize the risk of infection. Because we lived in a central location in the city, we had no supply problems. We were living in a small but very nice apartment, with all the comforts, a good heating system and internet access, which was much better conditions than most Wuhan inhabitants lived under.

Wuhan, China. Photo: Colourbox

Close contact with the authorities 

Because we were the only Uruguayans in Wuhan, the consul of my country started to call us regularly on the very first day of the quarantine to see how we were and to offer whatever kind of help we might need. My girlfriend, who has double Uruguayan and French citizenship, also contacted the French consulate in Wuhan herself to report the situation. From the beginning of the quarantine, I had to report about my health condition to the head of the Botanical Garden every day. The local government also contacted us. They knew everything about me and they just wanted to check my health condition and personal situation, as well as offering help in case we needed it. There were many daily calls and messages to inform the authorities about our situation. We were fine at home, working and watching movies, with enough food, and most important of all: we were safe. By that time, the city was completely empty; there were only ambulances and taxis taking people to the hospital.

Worried family and friends – support from the rector and the foreign minister 

Because of the international news about the magnitude of the outbreak, our friends and family in Uruguay and Denmark were worried, even though we insisted we were ok and explained about our good situation. We were also contacted by the media, but we preferred to remain silent. Many friends and colleagues contacted us to offer to help in whatever they could. From the rector of the University of the Republic in Uruguay to the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Uruguay, they offered their support and tried to facilitate our departure from the city.

Can we get out of here? How? And when? 

A few days later, and thanks to the French nationality of my girlfriend, we were contacted by the consulate of France in Wuhan, which was planning to take their citizens and their relatives to a nearby city. However, we would have had 14 days of quarantine there. At that time, the Chinese government was starting to lock down many other cities. The offer was not very tempting: exchange being in a good situation and having food for some others conditions that we did not know, and in a city that could possibly be quarantined during our period of confinement. This proposal was not viable, and after three days, we got the news that we would be evacuated to France by plane from Wuhan airport instead. It was the perfect exit, but we had no information on when, how or where we would go. The consulate sent us documents to sign: we would have to accept the conditions of transfer, evacuation and quarantine assigned to us without knowing what these conditions were.

Our only chance to get out of the city

The Uruguayan consulate in Shanghai could provide me with an exit permit from the city, but not a vehicle to leave with, and all other forms of transportation were banned. This was our only chance to get out of the city, so we signed the papers, crossing our fingers and hoping for the best. We packed our suitcase; and after two days of waiting for more information, we were informed that the flight would be the next day, and that we would have to get to the consulate of France in Wuhan on our own. This consulate is in the same neighborhood as the seafood market where the virus first appeared, more than 6 kilometres away from our place and with no transportation to get there.

By ambulance taxi to ground zero of the coronavirus epidemic

The morning of the flight, I went to look for one of the taxis assigned to our building. It was the first time I had been out in days, so I was very impressed to see the city empty, with the very few people around completely covered with masks, glasses and gloves. In the office where I had to book the taxi, they refused to assign me a taxi because my destination was not a hospital. Using the few Chinese words I had learned and the translator on my phone, I managed to explain our situation, and I guess the expression of fear and urgency on my face helped convince them. Finally, they agreed, but the only taxi available was to leave in 10 minutes. I ran to the building where we lived to get our luggage and the computer, and we ran back to take the taxi. The trip to the consulate was tense; we were nervous to be in that vehicle that took people to the hospital and to be going to the area where the virus had started, but we knew there was no other way to get there.

With masks and hand sanitizer on a plane to Marseille

From there we went by bus to the airport, and after almost 10 hours of waiting with several security and health checks, the flight finally took off. The whole time, our friends in Wuhan kept calling us, happy for the good news and as always offering their help in whatever way they could. On board the plane after take-off, the pilot informed us that the destination was not Paris as it had said on the display at the airport, but Marseille. During the more than 12 hours of flight, we wore new masks they gave us as well as hand sanitizer. Several hours after arriving in Marseille, and after the first general talk where they gave us some details of our situation, the authorities took us to a resort in Carry-le-Rouet especially adapted for the situation.

Marseille, France. Photo: Colourbox

Stuck in a baking hot bus while the press took pictures of us

Before we arrived, the bus was parked in the hot sun for over an hour, with the windows closed and without any ventilation, while photographers from the media took photos of us wearing masks and sweating inside the bus. To people who saw us from the outside, we must have looked like we were on death’s door.

Welcomed by Red Cross volunteers – and deeply grateful

When we arrived at the resort, we were welcomed by volunteers from the Red Cross who distributed hygiene kits to us and who would be in charge of each task in the coming days, from serving food, doing continuous medical tests and controls, and even organizing a nursery with activities, books and toys for the many children who came on the flight. These volunteers, working day and night, day after day, did a great job for all of us, as well as all of the French people who worked during the whole evacuation, so I feel immense gratitude to them. They did the very best they could, knowing that we were escaping from a bad situation, and that keeping us in prison conditions would not help anyone.

Quarantine paradise with a sea view

Now I am writing this from this paradisal place facing the sea, in a privileged situation compared to most evacuees from other countries, and much more privileged than most people in Wuhan.

This week, Carry-le-Rouet has been celebrating the sea urchin festival, and the locals sent us many urchins for us to taste.

Many western people are scared of markets like the one in Wuhan that appears to be where the virus started, and I must confess that I am one of them. I assume that this is one of the irreconcilable cultural differences with some things in the Chinese culture. However, I must also assume that it is a complex and vast culture, and I did not take enough time to learn enough about it to understand everything. I also know that my opinions can be influenced by prejudices and by a Western perspective that most of the things we do are good and that what is different is mostly negative.

What about the millions of people who are still in Wuhan?

Wuhan, China. Photo: Colourbox

I will remember Wuhan as the place where I lived through one of the most important experiences in my life, but not only because of this virus. Yes, it was tragic, but as a foreigner there, it did not affect me so much. I will remember Wuhan by the old women shouting at each other, not aggressively as I first thought, but happy to be going for a walk together. I will remember going out with friends, to talk in depth about life from such different perspectives but always in a constructive way. I will remember Cao Yu, who was my teacher but also – and even more – my unconditional friend. I will remember that he became the father of an adorable girl few months ago, and that he is praying, like so many others, that this virus will not affect his family. I will remember Yang Liu, one of the most sensitive and funny people we have ever met, who had to cancel the research trip to New Zealand, and who was so scared for days because of a common cold. I will keep the hugs that I would have liked to give them and the beers that we would have shared before we left. I am far away now, but my mind is still there with all the millions people who are living this tragedy in the first person while other ignorant people discriminate against them, forgetting that there are no ‘others’ when the world is one.

English proofreading by Lenore Messick

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