Call him Chisomo. The 19-year-old from Lilongwe City was among hundreds of African students trapped in Wuhan City, China, four months after arriving in that country for undergraduate studies in Guangzhou.
“I was excited at the prospect of learning at a high-ranking university in Guangdong Province where most Africans live,” he says.
However, Chisomo’s excitement was abruptly dashed by the novel coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak in Wuhan City. The global Covid-19 outbreak has since killed about 313 872 from at least 4.7 million cases.
He recalls: “In no time, universities migrated to online learning and imposed travel restrictions on students. Luckily, I stay on campus where I usually interact with my friends to ease mental pressure.
“Some colleagues returned to their countries, but I stayed put since I had lots of schoolwork to do and I didn’t think the situation would get as serious as it is.”
Leonard, 25, was among African students who fled Guangzhou in February.
“There wasn’t much happening at my college, so returning home wasn’t a bad idea after spending a year in China. I needed a break,” he says.
However, Chisomo endured the mental pressure caused by a racial backlash that followed massive declines in Covid-19 transmission in China.
The pandemic birthed xenophobic attacks on black Africans accused of bringing a second spate of the disease in April.
Last month, African students were subjected to forced Covid-19 testing and a 14-day self-quarantine regardless of their recent travel history.
Chisomo says: “I feel that was racially motivated because non-African students weren’t treated this way. All the African students in my dormitory were summoned to a lobby for temperature checks. Besides, health officials also tested us for coronavirus and ordered us to go on a lockdown.”
He adds: “A day afterwards, I got a call from the police enquiring my travel history. I had never travelled outside Guangzhou since my arrival in September.”
Six days later, health officials gave all the African students in Chisomo’s dormitory certificates they always had to carry with them whenever they went out.
This allowed them to move freely. From time to time, police and health officers demanded to see the document.
On return to the dormitory, health officials awaited them at the main entrance to check their body temperatures again.
He states: “The six-day lockdown was torturous though the university was bringing me food. However, other Africans, especially Malawians who didn’t have this privilege wherever they were locked, endured worse hardship.”
“This whole process was scary. I didn’t know what to anticipate after every encounter. I was always afraid of being thrown into an institutional quarantine if they detected high fever.”
As photographs and videos of discriminatory treatment against Africans in Guangzhou trended on the social media, some black migrants were left homeless after being evicted by landlords and rejected by hotels in the city.
The Chinese Government disputed the racial attacks that soured its diplomatic ties with Africa.
Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa, Uganda alongside other African States summoned Chinese ambassadors in their countries to protest the ill-treatment of their citizens.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) and over 300 human rights groups and nearly 1 800 activists petitioned the African Union for “immediate remedial action” over the “xenophobic, racist and inhumane treatment of Africans in China”.
In response, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian promised that provincial authorities would attach “great importance” to the concerns and work to improve quarantine measures and provide special accommodation to foreigners under medical observation.
On May 5, HRW asked China to protect Africans and people of African descent throughout China from discrimination in employment, housing, and other realms.
“Chinese authorities claim ‘zero tolerance’ for discrimination, but what they are doing to Africans in Guangzhou is a textbook case of just that,” wrote Yaqiu Wang, China researcher at HRW.
He asked Beijing to immediately investigate and hold accountable all officials responsible for discriminatory treatment.
While the Covid-related discriminatory tendencies have eased, Chisomo will live to remember the emotional roller-coaster that marred the first months of his studies has been.
“My studies have suffered greatly. Apart from studying a programme that is more practical and difficult to learn virtually, being forcefully tested and quarantined was too much to bear,” he says.