As the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak — the Chinese city of Wuhan in Hubei province — began easing lockdown restrictions towards the end of March, the first thing that Pakistani students studying at the Central China Normal University did was get together for a celebratory dinner.
"We visited nearby meat and vegetable shops open on campus grounds and bought items to prepare mutton karahi and other traditional dishes," said Naseem Baloch, an MPhil student of higher education enrolled at the varsity.
"To say that we celebrated the moments lost [to the outbreak] would not be an understatement."
The celebration, however, adhered to strict social distancing measures and other preventive steps. "Even while celebrating, we were wary enough to observe precautionary measures," he said.
The entire ordeal — from the virus emerging to restrictions on movement — was a traumatic experience for the students living in Wuhan, which caused some, according to Baloch, to become victims of depression.
"We were prohibited from visiting each other's rooms and not allowed to cook. The university's administration used to cater to our needs by delivering items to our doorstep, urging us to refrain from venturing outside."
At the very beginning of the outbreak in Wuhan, the gravity of the situation coupled with fear and anxiety had led many to urge the government to repatriate the stranded students.
But with the passage of time and a better understanding of the situation, that argument has also died down.
"Since the lockdown has lifted, talks of evacuation have taken a back seat," said Baloch.
"We still do not have permission to travel outside of campus grounds, but that is hardly an inconvenience; almost all things are easily available within the varsity's premises."
Despite being confined to their universities, students are overjoyed at finally being able to interact with one another.
"Compared to the last few months, we can at least sit down together for one-and-a-half-hour while having our meals," said Ali Nagri, a PhD student of international relations studying at Wuhan University.
We gather together for sehri and iftar and also offer our prayers together, he said, adding that the Middle Eastern store within campus grounds provides them access to halal food options.
According to Nagri, Pakistani students are now thankful for not being evacuated.
"Ever since we heard that there were zero new cases in Wuhan — which was once the epicentre of the outbreak — students have heaved a sigh of relief.
"They are thankful they did not return to Pakistan where the situation is worsening day by day," he said.
"The Chinese government has taken care of Pakistani students as if they are our own," said Peng Zhengwu, the deputy consul general at the Chinese Consulate, Lahore. "They are being provided all facilities at their doorsteps."
He said that life in Wuhan was slowly creeping towards business as usual step by step. "We are in close contact with the Pakistani students and hope they are able to complete their studies," he said.
From epicentre to zero cases
On April 26, Wuhan achieved a milestone in its months-long struggle against the coronavirus as officials reported that the city no longer had any Covid-19 patients in hospitals. According to the South China Morning Post, the announcement came a day after the city discharged its last critical patient.
In the downtown city area, streets are slowly becoming alive with the buzz and chatter of citizens slowly slipping back into their pre-pandemic routines.
Hamza Bajwa, a civil engineering student at Wuhan University, explained that the varsity administration had given students a digital pass to move freely within campus grounds.
"University officials can scan the pass, dubbed the 'Green Code', to get an update about students leaving and entering hostels and check their health," he said.
"Initially, it was tough. We were completely dependent on the university to fulfil all of our needs, including arranging our meals and water. But now we are able to order food online."
According to Bajwa, life post-lockdown has marked a new beginning for Pakistani students living in Wuhan who have emerged on the other side of what he called "the darkest night".
Approximately 500 students from Pakistan are currently enrolled in different universities across the city. Since the outbreak began, students have received financial assistance from the government which has been directly transferred to their bank accounts.
At the start of the lockdown in Wuhan, 3,500 RMB was transferred to their accounts, they said, adding that another 786.5 RMB has been transferred into the accounts of some.
"The rest of students have been receiving messages on WeChat — a social media messaging app like WhatsApp — saying that the Pakistani embassy will transfer the money to their accounts at the earliest," said Amanullah Baloch, who is completing his PhD in Plant Breeding and Genetics at Huazhong Agriculture University.
"The nightmare is almost over. Students are free to play sports and exercise within the campus. Our student life is slowly inching its way back to normalcy."
According to the PhD student, a few Pakistani officials visited the city a few weeks ago.
"They asked us about our concerns and in return only made empty promises to provide us with food before Ramazan," he alleged.
He also voiced his concerns about students that will complete their studies in June and July. "They were supposed to return to Pakistan after wrapping up their studies. But now they are in a state of limbo as the government has yet to outline a policy to bring them back."