Asia-Pacific

Fifty-five days and counting: The Australian teenager stuck without her parents near Wuhan

Jessica Xie-Moulton was due to fly home to Perth but is stuck in China. Source: SBS News

Exclusive: Fourteen-year-old Jessica Xie-Moulton has been living inside the epicentre of the coronavirus pandemic for nearly two months. Here, she tells SBS News how she's coping.

Jessica Xie-Moulton has been unable to leave her grandparents' tiny two-bedroom apartment in Yichang city for 55 days. 

The Perth teenager had gone to China to spend time with her ageing relatives during the Australian school holidays. 

Her flights home were booked for 11 February, but in late January life as she knew it changed.

Yichang is about four hours by car from Wuhan, in Hubei province, the initial epicentre of the coronavirus pandemic. 

Hubei was sealed off from the outside world under a state-imposed lockdown to prevent the further spread of the COVID-19 virus.  

Australian Jessica Moulton-Xie with her grandparents and mother.
Jessica with her grandparents and mother.
Supplied

Like many of the tens of millions of residents there, Jessica said she has been learning to cope with isolation, uncertainty and anxiety.

"I have no idea when I'm going to get out of this, I always have that little hope in the back of my head that it'll all end soon but I don't know, no-one does," she told SBS News. 

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Jessica's school has been emailing her work to do but it hasn't been easy for her to get on with her studies. 

"My teachers send me my homework but since I'm not there for the classes it's really hard because I don't know a lot of what they're talking about.

"I try my best to do all the work, but it's hard." 

'I draw every day'

For the 14-year-old, art has been a welcome distraction from what she describes as "groundhog day" every day.

"It's easy to start losing track of time and days because it feels like time just goes on and on and it's always just the same.

"I really miss my family and friends, and not being able to talk to them and have that real-life connection is hard.

"I do a lot of art, that makes time go faster, I feel, but we are bored a lot."

Jessica Xie-Moulton
Jessica has been using her art skills to help raise money for a Chinese hospital.
Supplied

Jessica said she wanted to help out with the COVID-19 outbreak in Hubei but felt limited in what she could do because the province was in complete lockdown.

So with the assistance of her mother, she launched a grassroots social media call-out to raise money for the local hospital.

"My mum advertised on Facebook and WeChat for portrait illustrations in exchange for a donation," she said. 

"People sent me a lot of photos and I drew their portraits and we raised around $2,000 for the hospital nearby."

Life in limbo

As the number of confirmed cases overseas has surpassed those within China, the tough measures that appear to have quelled the outbreak on the mainland - particularly outside Hubei - are gradually being relaxed.

Yichang city loosened travel restrictions last Friday and is allowing people to move in and out using a ‘health code’ monitoring system to keep tabs on peoples' movements.

Jessica said as a foreign national she has not been able to be included in the monitoring system and is still not able to leave the apartment.

The Xie-Moulton family.
The Xie-Moulton family.
Supplied

The teenager was unable to board the two evacuation flights arranged by the Australian federal government in February because she was considered a minor and did not have an Australian adult who could accompany her back.

Her grandparents are both Chinese citizens and the rest of her family are in Australia.

Her parents say even though their daughter is strong they are anxious about her wellbeing.

"The thing that I'm most worried about is her mental health and how to get her engaged to make her feel like she is not in a corner and forgotten," her mother said.

At the time of publishing, there were 119 Australian citizens and 236 Australian permanent residents stuck in Hubei province.

Many either could not make it to the airport in Wuhan because of roadblocks, had not registered with the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFAT) in time, or simply were not offered seats on the flights home.

A petition calling on the government to get the remaining Australians out has now attracted more than 1,000 signatures. 

In a statement provided to SBS News, a DFAT spokesperson confirmed there were no plans to bring those in the province back.

"We understand for those remaining in Hubei province that this is a stressful time for them and their families.

"We continue to urge those remaining in Hubei province to observe health precautions and advice issued by medical professionals, and to follow closely the advice of local authorities."

As of Tuesday afternoon, only people who have recently travelled from overseas or have been in contact with a confirmed COVID-19 case and experienced symptoms within 14 days are advised to be tested in Australia.

If you believe you may have contracted the virus, call your doctor, don’t visit, or contact the national Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080.

If you are struggling to breathe or experiencing a medical emergency, call 000.

Readers seeking mental health support can contact Lifeline crisis support on 13 11 14, and Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800 (for young people aged 5 to 25). More information is available at Beyond Blue.org.au. Embrace Multicultural Mental Health supports people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.

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