The government plans to quarantine a number of South Africans who have been in China in the small Free State town of Thaba Nchu, 63km from Bloemfontein.
The Mail & Guardian has learned from reliable government sources that the department of international relations and co-operation (Dirco) had asked the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) to assist it in the evacuation of South African citizens from China.
Government is mum on the plan, but the M&G understands that senior SANDF officials visited Thaba Nchu earlier this week to assess the area for purposes of quarantine and screening people for the coronavirus. The quarantine would last for 14 days.
But a senior government official said there is a worry that the people coming from China would not be tested before leaving — with the flight thought to be landing within the next few days. The official warned: “They want to do the screening here in the country, which could be a risk.”
It is unclear how many individuals will be evacuated, and where in China they will be arriving from. It is also not clear whether these people are government officials working in embassies or citizens.
Chinese officials have closed transport in and out of Wuhan and other areas of Hubei province, including buses, subways, trains and the international airport. Wuhan is thought to be where this strand of the coronavirus originated and began affecting humans.
Another government official said: “The plan is for the plane which will be carrying them to land at the airport in Bloemfontein and then they will be transported to Thaba Nchu. The concern right now is that the airport there is a public space and there need to be measures to protect those that are in the vicinity.”
SANDF spokesperson Siphiwe Dlamini would not confirm the plan and said this was a department of health issue. “The minister has put a team together that includes us and Dirco, but this is not an SANDF issue. We are helping where we have been asked to help just like if any department had requested our help.”
International relations department spokesperson Lunga Ngqengelele would not be drawn into commenting on the plan about Thaba Nchu and instead gave a general response.
“We are weighing all possible options available around the coronavirus in China. There are a lot of departments involved so that if anything happens we are ready as South Africa,” said Ngqengelele.
Covid-19 — the official name of this strain of the virus, as declared by the World Health Organisation (WHO) on February 11 — continues to affect many people in China and in other parts of the world.
The symptoms include a runny nose, sore throat, cough and fever. “In more severe cases, infection can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and even death,” said the WHO.
As of February 13, nearly 60000 people in China had been infected with the virus, with 1367 deaths.
According to the spokesperson of the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD), Sinenhlanhla Jimoh, South Africa remains on high alert for any suspected cases that can be imported through its borders.
“As of 13 February 2020, the NICD has tested 67 individuals under investigation for Covid-19 and all results have come back negative. We can confirm that South Africa has not reported any confirmed case of Covid-19. The National Emergency Operations Centre, housed at the NICD, remains activated and continues to receive information from the clinicians’ 24-hour hotline and the general public number,” she said in a statement.
But when Jimoh was asked about the evacuation plans discussed by the SANDF and the international relations department she forwarded the questions to the department of health.
The health department’s spokesperson, Popo Maja, said neither his department nor the NICD is aware of the quarantine.
“We are not privy to the discussions the Mail & Guardian are raising. NICD would have known about this through us and we have not been part of these discussions,” he said.
He added that it would be the responsibility of the health department to check anyone coming from high-risk countries.
The flight carrying South Africans from China — and the quarantine plans — have been orchestrated despite a note on the department of health’s website stating there was no ban on travelling to China. This is despite other countries evacuating their citizens.
The note said: “We are satisfied that the Chinese health authorities are doing everything in their power to contain the spread of the disease. On such matters, we are guided by the World Health Organisation and the International Health Regulations (2005). WHO does not recommend any restriction of travel or trade at this time.”
How the coronavirus spread around the world
December: Cases of pneumonia detected in Wuhan in China are reported to the World Health Organisation (WHO).
January 13: Thai authorities report a case of infection caused by the coronavirus. The infected individual is a Chinese national who had arrived from Wuhan.
January 16: A Japanese man who travelled to Wuhan is infected with the virus
January 17: A second person dies in China as the United States implements screenings in major airports.
January 22: Wuhan’s death toll reaches 17, as authorities confirm at least 547 cases in the mainland.
January 23: Wuhan quarantined.
January 30: The WHO declares coronavirus a global emergency as China’s death toll jumps to 170.
February 6: Authorities in Malaysia report the first known human-to-human transmission and the number of people infected in Europe reaches 30.
February 11: The WHO announces that the new coronavirus would be called “Covid-19”.
February 12: 242 deaths are recorded in the Chinese province of Hubei — the deadliest day of the outbreak thus far.
February 13: 48206 confirmed infections in in Hubei.
Hospitals identified as main centres to deal with a potential coronavirus outbreak:
Limpopo: Polokwane Hospital
Mpumalanga: Rob Ferreira Hospital
Gauteng: Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Hospital, Steve Biko Hospital and Tembisa Hospital
North West: Klerksdorp Hospital Northern Cape: Kimberley Hospital
Free State: Pelonomi Hospital
Eastern Cape: Livingstone Hospital
Western Cape: Tygerberg Hospital — Athandiwe Saba