Special Reports

Corona Virus: The Emotional Story of a Ugandan Student at a Chinese University

As the world welcomed a New Year (2020), John Paul Rugaba, a 21-year-old Ugandan software engineering Undergraduate student at Zhengzhou University, China was in high spirits.

“Exams were on the horizon. Surely, passing them was on the to-do list,” recalled Rugaba, who was born and raised in Mbogo, Kawempe, a Kampala suburb.

But as Rugaba and his colleagues were celebrating the beginning of the winter holiday, 468 km away in Wuhan, a deadly virus was emerging.

Life stayed normal until January 20 when 17 deaths were recorded.

“The news really started to get our attention,” he told ChimpReports in an exclusive interview on Saturday morning.

Six days later, with the death toll at 80, international students started to return home. The Coronavirus was spreading like a wildfire, stoking fears across China.

Zhengzhou University, through its School of International Education started to send out statements of caution to the students on the various social media platforms including, Wechat.

Students were warned on issues regarding their travel in and out of the city, measures of control and the official stance on the matter.


“By this time, the outbreak was global news and all this backed up by the fact that confirmed cases outside Chinese borders were starting to emerge. My parents, friends and relatives were extremely worried and so was everyone who watched this news,” recalled Rugaba.

Students were horrified to learn that the virus had no cure; its source clearly unknown and was highly contagious with the available statistics showing it was more infectious in terms of number of confirmed cases than SARS and MERS combined.

There is now a total of 95,265 reported cases of COVID-19 globally, and 3281 deaths, according to World Health Organisation.

In recent days, China reported 143 cases. Most cases continue to be reported from Hubei province, and 8 provinces have not reported any cases in the last 14 days.

Outside China, 2,055 cases were reported in 33 countries.


Rugaba said his source of major news about the virus came from the western media mainly through their various Twitter platforms.

“I must admit I wasn’t a keen follower of the Chinese mainstream media with only the exception being CGTN. But on January 29, my source of information about the virus changed,” he said.

Rugaba was invited to join a group of experts providing detailed analysis of the situation on ground through the Jobtube Daily or jobetube.cn group.

There were daily up-to-date stats about the virus including the number of confirmed cases, deaths and recoveries and also a link that would enable a user locate confirmed cases in their neighborhood.

The source of information for this platform were official Chinese government communication, Chinese national health communication and the World Health Organisation.

Just like it’s the norm in the Chinese New Year festivities, most shops and public centers were closed except for the big malls.

But with the virus rapidly spreading, banks closed with limited or no cash at the ATMs. More shops closed with online shopping temporarily suspended and the didi taxi service wasn’t spared.

Residential areas including where Rugaba stays restricted the number of hours one is allowed to stay outside to about 5 hours daily.

The university closed two of the 4 gates with hours of entry and exit.

Lectures were limited to 3 hours in the morning and 2 hours in the evening.

With more and more people rushing to the malls to shop for basic necessities, the school improvised and started offering students free masks and food supplies such as vegetables, milk and water.

With the delay of the spring semester, the school organised online classes through the various online teaching platforms like Tencent meeting, Superstar App and Rain Classroom, an online educational app created by the students of the prestigious Tsinghua University.

Zhengzhou University

“The lockdown was sickening, limited fresh air, a lack of exercise and of course the inadequacy of the warmth of the sun that would have provided a little warmth as this was the height of winter,” said Rugaba.

“With many of my fellow students heading home, I decided to stay as I had confidence in the Chinese system and also fear of spread of transmission back home in case I acquired the virus through transit.”

Rugaba said the school set up an international student’s emergency team from the already existing international students union that would regularly spray the students’ hostels and help the distribution of food and masks to the students.

“Currently, the situation isn’t good especially the fact that most people are confined indoors and with the death rate now at more than 2,000 nationwide, about 3000 medical workers infected and very few flights being operational,” he added.

But with the number of confirmed cases outside Hubei province decreasing, a little sense of ease is returning to Rugaba’s city.

With the re-opening of some shops, online shopping and transportation starting to resume and the introduction of online classes, a slight sense of normality is starting to kick in.

However, the situation for the people Wuhan, about 500 kilometres from Zhengzhou University, isn’t very pleasant.

Rugaba says with their city under lockdown and the virus being at their doorstep, “my hopes and prayers are with them. They are at the frontline of the virus outbreak just like the Chinese people of Wuhan city.”

Uganda still safe

So far, no Ugandan has died or been infected by Coronavirus.

The University had seven Ugandan students but four were helped by their parents to return home.

“Their parents were worried and decided to take them away while others didn’t have the means,’ said Rugaba.

The Ugandan government recently released Shs 2bn to help Ugandan students holed up in China.

Rugaba is cautiously optimistic.

“I hope that monetary assistance government of Uganda promised is of some comfort to the students during this hard period. Though I urge more assistance to them. The Coronavirus has affected each and every person in China and I stand with my Chinese friends that this ordeal finally comes to an end.”

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