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Coronavirus: What life was really like for Northern Irish people in China as virus spread

Some caught rescue flights home, but others stayed and face heavy surveillance. They tell their stories in a new Radio Ulster documentary

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Alison Crozier

Alison Crozier

Stephen Maxwell

Stephen Maxwell

Yvonne Griffiths (third from left) with friends

Yvonne Griffiths (third from left) with friends

Westmeath man Cathal Kelly, a language teacher in the city of Wuxi

Westmeath man Cathal Kelly, a language teacher in the city of Wuxi

Min Shen, who lives in Belfast

Min Shen, who lives in Belfast

Min Shen's parents

Min Shen's parents

Professor Sam McConkey

Professor Sam McConkey

Alison Crozier

A number of people from Northern Ireland have spoken chillingly about their terror and fear for their lives as they were caught in the panic of the early stages of the coronavirus outbreak in China.

One woman told how she made a late-night race through police checkpoints in Wuhan to catch a rescue flight home as people died from the virus.

Several interviewees, including some from the Republic, have also talked of how a relentless crackdown by the one-party Chinese state appears to have succeeded in at least slowing down the pandemic.

But there's a warning from a health expert that the virus will almost certainly return for a second wave later this year and he's called for even more stringent measures to be introduced here to stop the spread of coronavirus.

A new Radio Ulster documentary - Alone Together in China - which is to be aired on Saturday, also hears criticism that governments in Europe didn't follow the lead of Asian authorities in preparing for a pandemic after the Sars outbreak 18 years ago.

Yvonne Griffiths, who is originally from Holywood, Co Down, was in Wuhan, the city at the epicentre of the coronavirus crisis, when the first signs of the disease were detected.

She was working for Birmingham City University teaching English to students preparing to go into higher education in the UK and tells the documentary, produced by Johnny Muir, of her alarm that students were beginning to come to class in masks.

They warned her of the dangers and brought her masks.

Yvonne says she was stranded in the city by a swiftly imposed lockdown in Wuhan until the British Foreign Office organised a rescue flight.

However, with little notice, Yvonne had to make a late-night dash through police roadblocks to catch the plane which was scheduled to leave within the hour of a phone call to her.

"We thought we were going to miss the flight," says Yvonne, who found the airport virtually deserted apart from two or three Chinese officials in hazmat suits along with Foreign Office staff.

Yvonne did eventually get on board the flight that took her home where she was in quarantine for two weeks before getting the all clear.

Alison Crozier, from Magheramorne, near Whitehead, and who teaches at a boarding school in Suzhou tells how she and her daughter ended up in a medical quarantine hotel for 14 days after returning to China from a holiday in Thailand.

The enforced move came after mother and daughter were told upon return to their home in Suzhou that someone sitting near them on their flight had tested positive for the virus.

In quarantine, Alison and her daughter had their temperatures checked twice a day and also underwent throat and anal swabs as well as chest X-rays.

"I was petrified," says Alison, who talks of her relief at discovering that neither she nor her daughter had any Covid-19 symptoms.

Maths and science teacher Stephen Maxwell, from Lisburn, also tells a harrowing story of how he and his wife left their home in Suzhou to go for a holiday in South Africa, but were refused entry into their hotel because they had come from China.

The return flight to China was stressful with passengers looking at one another suspiciously to see if their fellow travellers were showing any symptoms of the virus.

Stephen says: "The person beside us kept taking their mask off. They were sneezing and coughing and they were using the sick bag to spit into it."

And when Stephen and his wife reached home they found themselves in the middle of a total lockdown, where all movement had been severely restricted.

He says: "It was really terrifying seeing all these places which were usually packed with people, didn't exist anymore. It was like a ghost town."

Cathal Kelly, from Westmeath in the Republic, has been a language teacher since 2017 in Wuxi, which is described as a relatively small city even though it has a population of five million.

He says his Chinese friends went out of their way to look after him at the height of the coronavirus crisis.

Min Shen, who lives in east Belfast, was born in Wuhan where his mother who still lives in the city had a procurement role in the very market that the coronavirus surfaced.

Min, who came to Northern Ireland 21 years ago to study at Queen's University, Belfast, and is now a certified blue badge tourist guide here, says he first heard about the virus in the middle of December when health officials posted a message about an "unidentified pneumonia".

Min's mother has not been out of her home for 85 days and she has told her son she knows one of the first market stall holders to be diagnosed with Covid-19.

She has, however, now been tested negative for the virus.

Min says his family and friends in Wuhan supported the lockdown and impressed on him the need for people in Northern Ireland to learn from the experiences of residents in China and wear face masks, wash their hands and follow government guidelines.

Professor Sam McConkey, one of the Republic's leading authorities on tropical medicine and infectious diseases, has monitored the Covid-19 outbreak from the start, watching the number of cases soar dramatically.

He says the Sars outbreak in mainland China, Hong Kong and several other countries in 2002 was followed by a major plan on how the nations would respond promptly if it came back.

"That's why they were so much quicker off the block," says Professor McConkey, who claims that Europe and America have been suffering from a "lack of preparedness for a global pandemic".

The exiles all talk of how the Chinese used their technological expertise to help in the battle against coronavirus, with smartphones at the forefront of the tracking of the illness and providing assurances to residents that food deliveries had all been processed by people without Covid-19.

Mr Maxwell acknowledges the high levels of surveillance used by the Chinese government to monitor people's movements and to trace anyone who may have come into contact with the virus, might seem draconian to us.

"It is a bit alarming because they do know where you are, they can follow you anywhere you go and every camera in our area tracks you, but when it comes to a situation like this I do believe it's for the greater good."

So much so that he says his mother, who works at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast, now feels China is probably the safest place for him to be.

In recent days it's been reported that life in Wuhan is slowly returning to normal after the apparent slowdown of the virus.

And with some people no longer wearing masks Cathal Kelly says: "You get to see their mouths again and their teeth. It's really strange."

But the threat of a second wave of infection is a real concern across China.

The worry is that people coming into China from abroad will bring the virus with them.

Cathal says it's unfortunate that "a little bit of focus" has been on foreigners returning to China.

He adds: "I haven't experienced any hostility at all but I know there have been some minor cases of foreigners being refused taxis and refused entry into certain places."

Mr Maxwell says some Chinese people in the building where he lives won't get into the lift with foreigners because they're worried about one person infecting the rest of the people around them.

Having come through their ordeals, the Irish exiles are united in hope, tempered by caution for Northern Ireland.

Alison Crozier says people here must adhere to the advice from the Government.

Yvonne Griffiths says the response of the British authorities has been slow and she's questioned if the measures they have in place are strict enough to stop the spread.

Professor McConkey says that Covid-19 will "almost definitely come back" adding: "The idea of immunity and herd immunity is to me still at the level of speculative theory.

"It has never been proved that there is effective herd immunity to coronavirus yet.

"I believe we need even more restrictions now, I would like to see the use of mobile phones for contact tracing rapidly. I would like to see restrictions on travel in and out from other countries to protect people from asymptomatic shedders.

"It's what we do now as a collective nation that will improve our long-term economy, wealth, health and happiness."

Alone Together in China, produced by Johnny Muir, is on Radio Ulster on Saturday at noon

Belfast Telegraph