KAMPALA – She wakes every day long before dawn to chat with her three stranded daughters on the other side of the world in China's locked-down city of Wuhan, anxious to see they have started a new day virus-free.
“If I don’t get a reply it worries me, but if I get a reply from any of them I say, ‘’Thank you, Jesus,'" Margaret Ntale said.
Many countries evacuated citizens from Wuhan after the virus outbreak started there, but thousands of students from African countries have been left behind. Despite pleas with governments for evacuation, several African countries have said it's safer to stay in place.
More than 4,000 African students have been estimated to be in Wuhan, a result of China's push to expand its influence on the youthful African continent.
Bringing them home, governments say, is risky in sub-Saharan Africa, which on Friday confirmed its first case of the virus, in Nigeria's city of Lagos. Just two cases have been confirmed in North Africa, in Egypt and Algeria. Health systems can be weak, and quarantining dozens or hundreds of returning people is a major challenge.
That leaves African students stuck on ever-emptier campuses in Wuhan, worrying about running out of food or the money to buy it. Some governments have begun sending thousands of dollars to help them get by.
“I have a few friends who are not able to get things like detergent, sanitary towels, and then also not having food, like such things like that," said one of Ntale's daughters' roommates, Joanna Aloyo, via a messaging app.
On Thursday, Ntale joined other parents in Uganda's capital, Kampala, to talk to local reporters about their fears. And she started to cry.
“You can never know what is going to happen tomorrow. This is what scares me,” Ntale said. “The students are traumatized and equally terrified. It makes all of us break down.”
The uncertainty about their children is “psychological torture,” another parent said. At least 70 Ugandan students are stranded in Wuhan.
Uganda's health minister, Jane Aceng, could not be reached immediately. But two weeks ago she said the ministry was looking at the cost to “isolate, monitor and manage in the event of an outbreak among the group if repatriated.”
Meanwhile she has said the government would send $60,000 in emergency funds to be distributed among students in Wuhan.
But the parents said their children had not received the money.
“It is a bit upsetting that it appears no serious action has taken place," said one parent, Cecilia Oyet. "I think that kind of inaction or slow action sends a message to those students out there, and even to the youth within the country. It sends a message either that we as fellow Ugandans, we don’t care or that they as the youth, they don’t matter, and we feel it is not okay.”
The parents communicate with their children by phone and the occasional video chat. They are increasingly alarmed as the death toll from the virus has grown, though some speak of trying to remain positive.
Oyet, whose daughter is a medical student at Wuhan University of Science and Technology, recalled that about two weeks ago a student sent a message saying that “people are dying here in large numbers and the bodies are being cremated. Can you imagine us dying here and you don’t even see our bodies? Please do something before we become part of the statistics.”
Other countries have announced plans to send students money. Botswana's government has said each of its students in Wuhan will receive an additional allowance of about $144 a month and a local company will be engaged to deliver food, water, face masks and even provide “psychosocial support services.”
But that's not enough, some students and parents say. After some called Ghana's government “callous” for not evacuating its students, President Nana Akufo-Addo last week said it had not been ruled out but it would be done in a way to avoid “fear and panic among the public.”
In Ethiopia, where some worried families gathered in the capital, Addis Ababa, seeking evacuations, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed this week said Chinese President Xi Jinping assured him in a phone call that China would provide “special care and support” to stranded students.
Chinese authorities have issued statements saying students are receiving food and other necessities. But Kenya’s government raised eyebrows last week when it announced on Twitter that any communication from the government to stranded Kenyans in Wuhan “must be done through the Chinese government.”
Spirits among some students have been low. Until Thursday night when South Africa announced that more than 130 citizens in Wuhan would be evacuated, the small island nations of Seychelles and Mauritius were the only countries in sub-Saharan Africa to bring citizens home.
In an open letter to Nigeria’s president published earlier this month by the Sahara Reporters website, a Nigerian stranded in Wuhan, Ayodeji Adetunji Idowu, made an urgent plea, saying the “mood here is fast turning to frustration, helplessness, and despondency because of our failure to receive diplomatic support to be evacuated.”
While Nigeria’s ambassador sent the community a personal donation of about $2,850, “it saddens us that days and weeks have gone past ... to get a favorable response from authorities," Idowu wrote.
AP journalists Cara Anna in Johannesburg and Francis Kokutse in Accra, Ghana, contributed.