'Throwaway citizens': Australian retiree rejected for Wuhan evacuation flights feels left behind

Ben Doherty and Naaman Zhou
'Throwaway citizens': Australian retiree rejected for Wuhan evacuation flights feels left behind. Garry Ridder, a 78-year-old from Cooma, says he missed out despite the government prioritising the elderly, young and vulnerable

A 78-year-old Australian man trapped in Wuhan says he feels like a “throwaway citizen” after being rejected for the government’s evacuation flights and he “now knows what it feels like to be in jail”.

Garry Ridder, a retired engineer from Cooma, arrived in Wuhan, in Hubei province, in late January, just as news of an unknown virus emanating from the city began to emerge.

Ridder, who worked on the Snowy Hydro scheme and spent years as an officer in the Royal Australian Air Force, says he was refused a spot on one of the Australian government’s evacuation flights, despite the government saying it would prioritise the elderly, the young and “the isolated and vulnerable”.

So far more than 500 Australians have been airlifted out of Wuhan and brought to Christmas Island and a mining camp near Darwin for a 14-day quarantine period.

But Ridder says he received “no response but a quiet chuckle” when he asked the department of foreign affairs if his age qualified him for priority. An 18-month-old Australian toddler, Chloe Luo, has also been refused an evacuation flight.

Related: 'A hard and sad decision': fleeing coronavirus in Wuhan for Christmas Island

Other Australians stranded in the city have said the priority process is unclear and they are being “swept under the carpet”.

“The mantra of most army units in the world is ‘Leave no one behind’,” Ridder tells Guardian Australia. “This is obviously not in the Australian government’s playbook.”

He and his wife, Lin, a Chinese citizen and Australian permanent resident, face an uncertain wait. They have rebooked their planned April departure to Australia for mid-March, but there is no guarantee when flights will be able to leave the city again. All land transport from the city is blocked.

“I now know what it feels like to be in jail,” Ridder says from his apartment block in Dongxihu district in the north-west of Wuhan city, on the banks of the Han River.

“My family here say I am not to go outside, the danger is too great, so I exercise on the enclosed verandah – not great for someone who takes a daily walk in the Cooma fresh air, where the house backs onto the native Australian bush.”

Globally, the coronoavirus, now known as Covid-19, has infected more than 60,000 people, and claimed 1,369 lives. More than 95% of deaths have been in Hubei, in central China.

In the province’s capital, Wuhan, Ridder says the mood is one of grim perseverance.

“There are no transport facilities at work at all for a population of 11 million, and the place is like a ghost town. Shops are low on essentials, and do not like to accept cash for goods, as there are no banks open, and projections are that they will not open before the 22nd of February.

“Around the apartment block at normal times it is all activity and noise, now [there is] nothing, a few people walking around for shopping, and essential services such as rubbish collection ongoing. Usually there are family get-togethers, now all the chatting is done on social media.”

Ridder spoke regularly to the foreign affairs department – racking up several hundreds of dollars in phone bills – about getting a seat on one of the two government-run evacuation flights, but was ultimately unsuccessful.

He says communications were difficult, and the information provided frustratingly inconsistent, especially over the government’s initial insistence that evacuees would have to pay $1,000 to be airlifted out, and that permanent residents would not be eligible.

He says he requested a spot on the second evacuation flight, but was refused.

“My call [was] answered by a polite gentleman [at Dfat], he checked and confirmed that we were not listed on the next and last flight out of Wuhan. I queried why not, and he said he did not know. I asked about what priorities for listing, and they were: ‘young, old and short-term staying’.

“I did ask him if 78 years qualified as ‘old’. No response but a quiet chuckle.”

The foreign minister, Marise Payne, said this week the Australian government had evacuated 502 people on the two Qantas flights. Another 36 Australians left on a New Zealand-government run flight to Auckland, and were then taken to Christmas Island.

Payne confirmed the government was not contemplating a third mission for the roughly 100 Australian citizens who remain in Hubei province.

Payne said 70 Australians who had been approved to fly had been unable to make it on board, either through failing medical screenings, Chinese authority clearance requirements, or simply by not being able to reach the airport through roadblocks.

Payne said: “Our focus on the assisted departures that we have carried out so far has been on isolated and vulnerable Australians – those who have been usually in the area for a short period of time – and we have worked very hard, including taking over 10,000 calls, to deal with these issues, to support those families.

“We are not considering further assisted departure flights.”

Related: China to relax its internet restrictions for 100,000 students hit by Australia's coronavirus travel ban

Ridder says Australians still in Wuhan feel left behind.

“Is it the best and most capable 100 that can survive the virus in Wuhan, or are they the least-important, throwaway citizens?”

Ridder says each day in Wuhan is dominated by the need to keep healthy.

“That is the loaded gun behind all the daily activities: getting sick is not an option, local controls are quite strict, if you get recorded with a raised temperature, then you are off to hospital and into a system where you have no control or input over where you go – it is to be avoided at all costs.”

Ridder says he has been told of residents in his apartment complex with raised temperatures who had prepared to resist health officials with a knife if they came to take them to hospital.

“There is the short game and the long game. The short game is to survive and that means not getting sick ... that means strict controls over sanitation and food input.

“The long game is to leave Wuhan at the earliest opportunity.”

He says his wife, who has family in Wuhan, including a son and daughter-in-law, is in “two minds” about leaving.

“She has family here … how will it be if they are here by themselves?”