An Australian in quarantine on Christmas Island has spoken of his anguish at having to choose between staying with his elderly parents in Wuhan and taking an evacuation flight that would mean he could rejoin his wife and twin daughters in Australia.
Prof Yan Zhang, an Australian citizen from Sydney who teaches at Western Sydney University, spoke to Guardian Australia from the remote island detention centre as he undergoes a 14-day period of isolation.
The 57-year old said it was hard to leave behind his parents, who are now vulnerable and unsupported by China’s under-pressure medical system.
“It was a hard and also sad decision for me,” Zhang said. “On one hand, my wife and twin daughters are in Australia, and they worried about me so much and wished me to return as soon as possible.
“But on the other hand, Wuhan has my parents and elder sister and her husband. Especially my father turns 93, and my mother 85 this year, they are quite fragile. I really worry about them.
“After the Wuhan lockdown, all hospitals had to deal with patients with coronavirus infections, people with other issues had no place to see doctors. Now I can only pray my parents don’t get sick, and can overcome this difficult period.”
Zhang said he was otherwise in good spirits, felt “healthy” and was not aware of any cases of coronavirus among the 277 Australians who have been evacuated from the Chinese city of Wuhan.
Zhang thanked the Australian government for organising the evacuation flight out of Wuhan, where the new strain of coronavirus first emerged.
Earlier, other Australians evacuating from Wuhan told Guardian Australia they had concerns over the rudimentary health facilities on the island – especially for the elderly, the young and pregnant women.
On Friday, Zhang said that to his knowledge, no Australians had come down with the new virus.
“I’m very healthy,” he said. “I’m an amateur mountaineer. I have climbed some difficult peaks in New Zealand and the Himalayas. I’m not aware of anyone who got sick in here.”
The Sydney professor said conditions were “not perfect” but adequate.
“Life on Christmas Island is good enough for me. I have my own room, and we have sufficient outdoor space to walk around and do some exercise.
“Food is a bit limited, too much meat for me, and lacking fruits and vegetables. Yesterday I had put some comments on this in the request book. Hopefully it will be improved.
“We have a big oval ground, where we can do some walks. I usually get up at 5am, go to the oval to take photographs, for about one hour. During the daytime, I do some university research, write my diary.
“In the afternoon I do some body weight exercises in my own room. After dinner I go to the oval again to take photos. I read books for about one or two hours before I go to bed at 9pm. I don’t feel bored at all.”
The Australian government organised its first evacuation flight – using a jet provided by Qantas – to bring 243 Australian citizens and permanent residents out of Wuhan on Monday. A pregnant woman and her partner were taken to Perth to be nearer a tertiary hospital, but the rest were transferred to Christmas Island.
Another 36 Australians were evacuated on a NZ-government chartered flight. They were also brought to Christmas Island.
A second Australian-run evacuation flight was scheduled to leave Wuhan just after midnight Saturday morning.
Those passengers will be quarantined at the now-disused Inpex workers village just outside Darwin in the Northern Territory, rather than on Christmas Island.
The second Australian flight out of Wuhan was reportedly over-subscribed, with many more Australians trying to get out than there are seats on the plane. However, it is likely to be the last flight the government will be able to organise, with Chinese authorities unlikely to permit more evacuation missions from Australia.
When the initial charter flight was announced, some Australians chose to stay in the city, preferring to wait for the outbreak to subside, but as it has spread and intensified, many are now taking the chance to leave.
Globally, the outbreak has infected more than 31,000 people and killed 636, the vast majority of those in Hubei province.
Zhang, who did his undergraduate studies in Wuhan, said it was “panic” in the city when the Chinese government announced it would be locked down to prevent the spread of the virus.
“All kinds of transportation were cut off suddenly without any warning. I realised I couldn’t return to Sydney on my schedule of 29 January.
“Some people thought the lockdown could finish within a couple of weeks, and things would get better. With the situation of Wuhan was getting worse every day, we finally realised our life in Wuhan would be much more difficult than initially thought.”
“I would like to thank the Australian government to make this evacuation plan happen,” Zhang said. “Also I would like to tell outside people that conditions in Christmas Island are not perfect, but generally good from my personal point of view. Staff here are very responsible and supportive.”