/ 14 February 2020

South Africans stuck in China are desperate to escape coronavirus ‘prison’

Covid-19 coronavirus
The West’s perceptions of China hold up a mirror to its own preoccupations. More nuanced analysis is much-needed. (Anthony Wallace/AFP)

“Let me tell you what it is like: We are in a prison,” businessman Pieter Viljoen tells the Mail & Guardian over the phone from Wuhan in China.

“And the only thing that you worry about tomorrow is whether you have food or if you’re sick. If your nose twitches you are worried. So you live with that constantly.”

Viljoen is one of a group of 78 South Africans who have complained about being trapped in the city where the coronavirus is thought to have originated. As of February 13 there are about 60 000 people affected by the Covid-19 as this strain of the virus is known, with 1 367 people reported dead.

According to Viljoen, who initially visited China three weeks ago on a business trip, he and others stuck in the city have implored the South African embassy in China and the department of international relations and co-operation (Dirco) officials to assist them.

This is despite reports by the department that South Africans still in China are comfortable and being taken care of. 

Speaking on radio on Thursday, International Relations Minister Naledi Pandor denied knowledge of any South Africans who are desperate and stuck in China.

“They indicated that they are being looked after by the institutions they are attached to.They say they are being looked after; they are in safe conditions. They have food and accommodation,” said the minister.

“We do not know where the idea of a desperate group that wants to come back comes from.”

But a letter addressed to Ben Malan, the department’s deputy director of consular services in Asia and the Middle East, reveals that the 78 South Africans have struggled to get the attention of the government.

The letter contains a number of screenshots of emails purportedly sent to the South African Embassy in Beijing, and the department, asking to be evacuated.

Viljoen, who is staying in a hotel at his own cost, says the statements by the minister are “laughable”.

“Any public space in the city of Wuhan is closed. I think if people in South Africa actually understand what that means … So if you want to go to the shops, you have to walk there. Because there is no public transport — no buses, no taxis, nothing. So you have to walk two, three, four kilometres to the closest shop to go buy food,” he says.

“But apparently we are still fine, you know, we’re good.”

Crossed wires

When contacted by the M&G, department of international relations and co-operation spokesperson Lunga Ngqengelele said the department does not know of any cases of people stuck in China.

“Through our missions in Shanghai and Beijing, we have constant contact with those South Africans in China. We even have a WhatsApp group; there has been no indication that they are desperate to come back. That has never been reported to us. Those people are welcome to contact us, so that we can make the necessary arrangements with the embassy there,” Ngqengelele says.

“We are willing to make the necessary plans for those who are evacuated. [At] OR Tambo airport they will get tested immediately when they land in the country.”  

Viljoen says he feels the government does not actually want to bring the South Africans stuck in China back home.

“Because maybe they are actually not ready and they don’t want to be blamed if something happens. Because they don’t know how to handle the situation. So it’s like ‘You know what. It is better if you people just stay there. We will forget about you’.”

A source who spoke to the M&G on Friday on the condition of anonymity says that there are probably hundreds of South Africans working for different companies in China, who have come back and have not been quarantined.

“The fact that you have hundreds of people who have been there, and were not tested or anything when they came into the country. This is a health risk to the rest of South Africans and the government didn’t do anything about it. They came in here through different routes and no one looked into them. I know some who are [my] family members who worked in China,” says the source.

Quarantine plan

On Friday, the M&G reported that the South African government has plans in place to quarantine a number of South African citizens who have recently been in China. The M&G also understands that the department of international relations and co-operation has asked the South African National Defence Force to assist with the evacuation of those people who have been in China when they arrive in South Africa. 

The process is reportedly set to take place in the small town of Thaba Nchu in the Free State within the next few days. The government has remained mum about these quarantine plans. And the department of international relations and co-operation spokesperson said, “We have no knowledge of such plans.” 

The World Health Organisation also indicated that it does not recommend the restriction of movement for people to and from China.

Meanwhile, Viljoen says South Africans stuck in China are suffering the mental toll of not having a way out. 

“We might not be sick — but we are not mentally fine … It takes a toll and we feel abandoned.”

Stuck in Wuhan

Francois Daneel, a teacher who has been living in Wuhan for six months, says the solitary conditions of living through the outbreak have been difficult. “Things are just getting worse and worse … We are sitting alone in one place [with] nobody to talk to. It is not only a physical thing; it is a mental thing as well.”

Daneel has started taking online Mandarin lessons “just to keep my mind busy”.

“Because my apartment is so small and I am only allowed to go out two times a week,” he says.

Daneel says about four days ago he went to the supermarket and was “really worried” because it had run out of food. “There were no vegetables, no meat. Everything had run dry.”

But he says he was relieved to find the supermarket had been restocked on Thursday. “There were fresh tomatoes. Fresh everything. I was so happy.”

Daneel says he feels “beyond frustrated” about not being able to get assistance from the South African government to leave China.

“We are not asking for a free ticket to come back to South Africa. All we are asking is that they assist us to help us get out of here,” he says.

“At the moment we can’t even get to the airport. Nobody understands. If you are not in Wuhan, you don’t know our dilemma. We are stuck here.”

He says in the early days of the outbreak “none of us ever realised what an impact this is going to have on our lives. But it’s had a huge impact.”

But the community of South Africans still stuck in China are helping each other get through the ordeal, Daneel says.

“We’ve got a WeChat group and that WeChat group keeps us alive … We’re like family. We’ve created songs. We share recipes … So that is what is keeping us alive at the moment. We’re hanging in there.”