Equatorial Guinea infectee recalls Covid-19 plight, journey home

By Hoang Phuong   August 24, 2020 | 05:15 pm PT
Equatorial Guinea infectee recalls Covid-19 plight, journey home
Vietnamese workers from Equatorial Guinea arrive at the National Hospital for Tropical Diseases in Hanoi, July 29, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Thanh.
Traveling all the way to Africa for work, Tung was forced to return to Vietnam after contracting the new coronavirus.

When half conscious, Bui Van Tung* heard someone call: "Up! We're going to quarantine, we’ve all tested positive."

Tung, 33, was on the list of 24 Vietnamese workers that contracted the novel coronavirus while employed at Sendje Hydropower Plant in Litoral Province of Equatorial Guinea.

Experiencing muscle pain all over his body, Tung was little prepared for the ambulance's arrival on the afternoon of June 21, grabbing only two sets of clothes and a phone with no sim.

Along with six colleagues, he was whisked off to a quarantine facility.

The infectees had first noticed bodily pain as well as breathing difficulty and the loss of taste a week prior.

"We simply thought it was a cold fueled by seasonal transitions," Tung noted, adding they had been rather inattentive while Equatorial Guinea ramped up over 1,000 Covid-19 cases and 12 deaths.

With a population of only 1.2 million, the numbers made it one of Africa's most "severely affected" by Covid-19 according to the World Health Organization.

In early July, 116 in 219 Vietnamese workers at the hydropower plant were confirmed positive for the coronavirus.

Tung had relocated to the African nation in spring 2019 after signing an 18-month contract with a private construction firm in Hanoi. To date, more than 200 Vietnamese are employed at Sendje Hydropower Plant under labor contracts drawn up between Duglas Alliance Ltd of the U.K. and three Vietnamese companies.

Before he left, his older sister pawned the land use certificate for a 500-square-meter plot in order to borrow VND20 million ($862), at an interest rate of 4 percent a month, toward a deposit required by the Hanoi firm.

The inherited land is shared among Tung, the youngest, his three brothers, and three sisters, all with their own established families.

Tung lives alone in the house of his parents, who had passed away in 2012 and 2014.

His hometown in north central Vietnam is dotted with mountains and hills. Here, women are commonly employed in factories, doing jobs requiring detail-oriented skills, while men cultivate sugarcane and fruit.

A day working as a mason in Equatorial Guinea could earn him the sum equal to five days' harvesting at home.

Of Muong ethnicity, Tung wanted to save money to find a wife since most village girls thought he was too poor to raise a family.

One and a half years ago, Tung skipped town with his two brothers-in-law.

At the hydropower plant, he earned VND16 million a month molding concrete via temporary shuttering nine hours a day. He sent each paycheck to his sister in Vietnam, helping her pay off the loan in the first four months and reclaim the land use certificate. His sim card-less phone was only used to video call his family once back at his shared dormitory.

"The journey itself cost us little more than our labor power, yet we almost died," Tung said. If it was not for Covid-19, he could have served out his contract until September 8 and returned to Vietnam with deeper pockets.

Bui Van Tung talks to his friend on he phone at the National Hospital for Tropical Diseases in Hanoi, August 14, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Thanh.

Bui Van Tung talks to his friend on the phone at the National Hospital for Tropical Diseases in Hanoi, August 14, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Thanh.

Not as planned

Equatorial Guinea announced its first infection on March 14 - a woman returning from Madrid in Spain, a Covid-19 hotspot.

Worried community transmissions could affect the construction site, many Vietnamese workers requested no outsiders be allowed entry. However, 129 ended up contracting the virus.

After being confirmed positive, Tung was quarantined at Hotel de Federaciones Malabo in Bata City, where he shared a 30-square-meter room with six other patients. One after another, each called home to announce the bad news, except for Tung. However, despite his withholding the information, rumors of his Covid-19 death started circulating back in his village. He was only told the story by his sister once back in Vietnam.

In desperation, several workers had sought help from Vietnamese representative agencies in Angola.

On July 10, struggling to breathe, Tung was transferred to La Paz Hospital. Here he met more than 10 other Vietnamese infectees. "Oh you’re still alive. Thank God!" they greeted each other after spending two weeks apart with no news.

That same day, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc requested related organizations to facilitate the repatriation of all 219 workers.

For Tung, waiting for the repatriation flight, an unprecedented effort by Vietnam, which operates no direct flights to conflict-ridden and underdeveloped Equatorial Guinea in central Africa, was a period he "could not tell day from night."

During this time, all he could do was lie in bed, try to eat the wheat flour and cassava infused hospital fare and await his medication. At night he would dream of sharing rice, boiled vegetables and pickles with his six siblings and parents.

Home sweet home

Flight VN05 to repatriate the stranded workers departed Noi Bai International Airport in Hanoi at 7 a.m. on the morning of July 28 and landed in Bata after 12 hours of nonstop flying.

For the second time, the crew, including doctors, had to wear protective suits used in areas treating Covid-19 patients, after the rescue flight to bring home stranded Vietnamese from Chinese Covid-19 epicenter Wuhan in February.

On the bus from the hospital to the airport, Tung finally saw his two brothers-in-law again. Only then did they learn he was still alive.

Looking up at the equatorial night sky one last time, Tung told himself he would "never return here again."

Vietnamese workers in Equatorial Guinea board an aircraft at Bata airport to fly home, July 28, 2020. Photo courtesy of Vietnam Airlines.

Vietnamese workers in Equatorial Guinea board an aircraft at Bata airport to fly home, July 28, 2020. Photo courtesy of Vietnam Airlines.

The plane bringing the 219 workers home was designed in a way to separate infectees from other passengers. On the return journey, all instructions were announced by doctors via loudspeaker. Though Tung struggled to sleep on his plastic-covered chair, nothing could still the joy he felt returning home.

"We’re home! We’re alive!" all passengers yelled as the plane touched down at Noi Bai at 3:20 p.m. on July 29.

Awaiting them at the airport were 20 army trucks and ambulances along with 250 doctors from Hanoi’s National Hospital for Tropical Diseases. All were immediately brought to a military facility for quarantine.

Infectees were hosted on the fourth floor of the facility, which Tung dubbed "the infected floor." His first meal after one and a half years away from home included rice and boiled vegetables along with boiled pork, just like in his dream. His first video call to his family after two months made his sister burst into tears. That night, Tung slept like a log.

The next week, after screening, doctors confirmed only 21 of the 219 repatriates had tested positive for the novel coronavirus, and not 129 as thought earlier.

The disparity in infectee numbers could be ascribed to patients having already been treated or recovered during the three to four weeks prior to landing in Vietnam, said Dang Hong Hai, deputy head of the General Planning Department at Hanoi's National Hospital for Tropical Diseases.

"Covid-19 involves an acute stage of around one to two weeks. For non-severe patients, symptoms may subside in two weeks, after which they would test negative for the novel coronavirus," he maintained.

On the morning of August 18, a batch of 183 workers were allowed to leave quarantine for home, including Tung and his two brothers-in-law.

Back in their hometown, the three were guided in protocols relating to mandatory 14-day self-isolation.

The house Tung used to occupy by himself 1.5 years ago subsequently turned into a temporary quarantine facility, with food delivered to the gate by his sisters each day.

"The commune had the news of us broadcast out loud," Tung said, adding it had made him feel unwelcome in his hometown.

Once done with 14-day isolation, he plans to go to Hanoi to retrieve his passport and outstanding salary for the past two months.

Tung plans to save some of his earnings and use the rest to renovate his home, the first time in 16 years.

*The character's name has been changed to protect his privacy.

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