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An American Teacher Stuck In Wuhan Comments On Coronavirus Confinement

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Last night, a note hit my inbox. It was from Jeanine and Robert Stewart, a mom and dad in Crozet, Va. They had heard our coronavirus coverage, and they wanted me to know about their daughter Meg - 22 years old, a U.S. citizen trapped in Wuhan, China, where the coronavirus outbreak began and which has been under lockdown for a month. They were worried, so we called Meg Stewart today. She told me she moved to Wuhan last summer to teach English.

MEG STEWART: The majority of my students are between the age of 3 and, like, 5 years old. They're adorable (laughter).

KELLY: When the disease started going around in December, Stewart and other teachers weren't too worried. They kept the school clean. They made the kids wash their hands. But late last month, things took a darker turn.

STEWART: My friend and I were getting ready to leave Wuhan to go to Tokyo on the 23, the day that the city was shut down.

KELLY: The day that they imposed the full lockdown.

STEWART: Yeah, so things started to feel a little bit more real when it was like, nope, you can't fly out. You can't drive out. You can't take a train.

KELLY: Help me understand this because the State Department has flown planes of Americans out. Was that an option for you?

STEWART: When the emails and notifications first came out about the flights leaving Wuhan and Hubei province, the wording was not very extreme. It kind of sounded more like, hey, if you're in Wuhan or if you came to Hubei to visit, we're going to be taking flights out. So myself and another American friend of mine - we had decided to stay because we felt like we came here to work. But as the weeks progressed, there was no more information about potential further flights, and things have gotten tighter in terms of restrictions.

KELLY: Tell me how the situation has changed. I assume weeks ago must have stopped classes at the school where you're teaching. What's your daily life like?

STEWART: It's not exactly glamorous. I live alone in my own apartment. My daily is pretty much sleeping in. I watch TV. I make food, and that's pretty much it.

KELLY: When's the last time you saw another human being?

STEWART: About two weeks ago when I visited my friend across the street.

KELLY: You sound in remarkably good spirits, considering.

STEWART: Yeah, I definitely have my family and my friends to thank for that because I haven't been able to have face-to-face contact with people, but I have people who have been willing to say, hey, I'm here if you want to call me and just sit with me. We can do that.

KELLY: Thank God for FaceTime and for Skype.

STEWART: Yeah, and even just leaving the line open - I don't even always need to be talking. Just to know that someone else is there is really comforting.

KELLY: Your parents told me they have written to the State Department. I know you've reached out to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. What are you hearing back?

STEWART: When I was in contact with the embassy in Beijing, they said that there wasn't much that could be done at the moment. And that's understandable. It's definitely a difficult situation, and they understand that there is some unforeseen changes in terms of how the government is taking care of things and that it is a very stressful situation for people.

KELLY: There are no other plans of evacuations to your knowledge?

STEWART: No. They said that they could tell me that there were no more planes being scheduled.

KELLY: They know you're there. And you're fine, it sounds like. But in terms of how this ends, you have no idea.

STEWART: Correct.

KELLY: When it does eventually end, what do you think you'll do? Will you stay and try to keep teaching?

STEWART: It's hard to say. I think it's really easy to say when you're in a situation like this that you can just leave. I definitely miss my family and my friends back in the States a lot. But I, of course, also have very, very good people here taking great care of me. You know, my co-workers are kind of like a small family as well. And I guess we'll just have to play it by ear and see what my general feeling is at that point in time.

KELLY: And I gather your Mandarin's pretty good. Are you in touch with any of your students or their families to see how they're doing?

STEWART: My company is keeping in touch with students through, like, a special application where the kids can post their daily English practice, whether it's just practicing vocab words or showing their parents different color objects and saying the color in English. Teachers can respond to them with little notes and small, short recordings as well. So we're definitely doing our best to keep in touch with the students, even if it's just through little notes, saying, like, great job. Your pronunciation's awesome. Keep up the good work - because during the situation, it's got to be difficult for them in some ways as well.

KELLY: That is Meg Stewart. She's been speaking to us from Wuhan, China, which has been under lockdown since January 23.

Really good to speak with you.

STEWART: Thank you.

KELLY: And we asked the State Department about Meg Stewart's situation in Wuhan. It says it does not comment on specific cases due to privacy considerations. The department also said it could not provide precise figures on how many Americans remain in Wuhan and other quarantined parts of Hubei province. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.