Michael Girma wants to go home.
The 25-year-old student misses his sister and brother. He misses his mother, and his friends 5,000 miles away.
Since late January, Girma has been trapped in Wuhan, China, the original epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak.
Girma studies electrical engineering at Hubei University of Technology, along the Xunsi River, near the middle of Wuhan.
He’s also an Ethiopian citizen, and like hundreds of other Ethiopian college students studying in China, he has not been evacuated.
Instead, he’s spent the past two months at the heart of a pandemic that has now spread to six continents.
“I mostly spend my time watching movies on Netflix,” Girma told VOA. “I try to read, but it’s more depressing at a time like this. My mind is numb right now,” he said.
‘It is now messing with our minds’
China’s efforts to curb the spread of the disease have produced dramatic results.
After weeks of surging cases, Beijing reported no new local infections March 19. Now, imported cases, from Chinese returning from overseas, pose the gravest risk.
However, containing the outbreak has required an aggressive response, particularly in Wuhan, where travel in and out of the city has been blocked, and sick patients not needing hospitalization have been separated from their families in isolation shelters.
Girma and other foreign students stuck in Wuhan have been told it will be until at least mid-April before travel restrictions are eased.
That’s little comfort to those who have felt trapped for months.
“It is now messing with our minds,” Girma told VOA via WhatsApp. “For some, it is getting worse psychologically. Some of them even don’t have friends and are separated from them, so they are lonely and depressed,” he added.
Girma credits the Chinese government with taking decisive action to save people’s lives.
“For the time being from China,” he said, “the Chinese government is doing its best and it is doing its best for its citizens who need monitoring and assistance due to the virus.”
He faults the Ethiopian government, though, for not doing more to assist its citizens in Wuhan.
In early March, some African countries — but not Ethiopia — evacuated their citizens as the virus began to spread rapidly in Hubei province.
Instead, the Ethiopian government began providing students in Hubei a two-month $400 allowance to buy food and necessities, Girma said.
Ethiopia’s ambassador to China, Teshome Toga Chanaka, helped coordinate a task force with the student union in Wuhan.
“The situation was very scary and worrisome given the nature of the virus. We therefore focused on protection and care for them where they are,” Chanaka said.
According to Girma, though, only about half of 300 students budgeted had received the stipend several weeks later. Even now, Girma and other students in Wuhan have identified at least 66 Ethiopians who have not received the payments.
“Everyone is begging for a response right now,” Girma said.
Students have been receiving aid, Chanaka said, but the Ethiopian government didn’t have accurate information for all its citizens.
“The Ethiopian Embassy in Beijing has been processing the transfer based on the address and bank account of each student,” Chanaka said. “In the process, we have faced the problem of getting the correct address and account number for about 50 students.”
Longing for home
Girma is the eldest of three children. His 19-year-old sister and 21-year-old brother live in Addis Ababa, along with their mother.
Three months ago, Girma’s father died. Girma could not return home because he feared losing his student visa.
When he finally returns home, he plans to eat injera, Ethiopia's national dish, “nonstop” and talk to his mother around the clock. For now, he waits alone in his off-campus apartment, where, he figures, he has a better chance of leaving than his classmates on campus.
As he waits, he’s seen the threat spread back home. As of March 27, Ethiopia had 16 confirmed coronavirus cases, with more than 3,700 cases across Africa.