/ 6 March 2020

No SANDF crew to send to Wuhan

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Parental pleas: Anxious parents of children studying in Wuhan, China, at a meeting in Thaba Nchu a fortnight ago. They still do not know when their children will be returning home. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)

A plane has been prepared and is ready to evacuate South Africans trapped at the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, China but no crew members are willing to make the potentially perilous journey. 

The government’s repatriation effort is being overseen by a national interdepartmental committee. A senior official intimately familiar with the discussions has revealed to the Mail & Guardian that defence force personnel are unwilling to man the aircraft.

This week, the department of international relations and co-operation confirmed M&G reports on the evacuation plan for 151 South African citizens in Wuhan, with the process set to begin in seven to nine days. But, the carefully considered plans have now allegedly been hamstrung by reluctant defence force personnel.

“We do have an aircraft that is ready to go. There are no warm bodies that want to go to China, as they fear the risk,” the senior official said.

They added that: “Honestly, no one can force them to go there if they don’t want to. For real, no one expected things to go as smoothly as the government had thought.”

The delay has apparently been caused by the military, which had advised against the evacuation.

“If you go against the military, they can frustrate you. That’s the latest. So maybe that’s why everyone has not been coming to the front about what the plan really is and when it will be implemented.”

SANDF spokesperson Siphiwe Dlamini did not deny or confirm this, saying: “I do not have any knowledge of the non-availability of a crew for this mission. As far as I know everything is in place as has been planned.”

A statement released by the government said: “The aircraft with the capacity to bring back the citizens in Wuhan has been secured. An interdisciplinary team of relevant departments including health, home affairs, social development and the defence force will form part of the repatriation team from China to South Africa.

“Negotiations with a number of service providers to serve as a quarantine area have not yet been concluded…” the statement said.

In total there are 184 South Africans who have indicated their desire to be repatriated.

Government communication and information system director general Phumla Williams told the M&G that the government has not finalised anything related to repatriation.

“Right now, we are still in talks with the other stakeholders and nothing has been confirmed yet. We will inform the public when we are sure about everything. They will know which plane it will be. Where it will be landing and when. We are not withholding information unnecessarily. It is because we have nothing confirmed yet,” she said.

For people in Wuhan, and their parents, this means further delays.

Lisebe Motaung, whose son Sthembiso Motaung is a software engineering student at Wuhan University, says he has described the situation as unchanged.

“My son just wants to come back home. He says they are still on lockdown. The situation is still the same, where even accessing food is a problem.”

Added to the physical constraints, she says her son is also stressed because so little information is being shared with him and other South Africans. “They have not been told when they are coming home or even where they will be placed once in the country. This is a big inconvenience and causes panic for us as parents. Because they put pressure on us and it causes anxiety.

“It’s hard enough for me as a parent to not know how my child has been functioning for two months. Being locked in one room for that long will take a toll on them.”

The M&G could not reach Sthembiso by the time of going to print. Other students, and South Africans living in Wuhan, have previously said they have been left in the dark.

There are 68 students confirmed to be part of the group who will be coming back to South Africa. Five students have indicated that they do not want to come back home.

When the M&G first broke the story nearly a month ago, government officials were in the small Free State town of Thaba Nchu, working on a quarantine plan. At the time the government’s official position — as told to parents by the international relations department — was that they would not be evacuating people from China, on the advice of the World Health Organisation (WHO).

This was still the official position last week, when the M&G reported on the plans to repatriate citizens from China. These plans were being drawn up by the Justice, Crime Prevention and Security cluster — which consists of ministers Bheki Cele (police), Ronald Lamola (justice), Aaron Motsoaledi (home affairs), Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula (defence), Ayanda Dlodlo (state security) and Tito Mboweni (finance). It was this cluster that agreed to repatriate citizens from Wuhan in Hubei province.

Minutes from last week’s cluster meeting show that the constitutional rights of South Africans in Wuhan helped drive the decision to repatriate citizens. The government is legally obliged to support citizens who may be in “mortal danger” abroad.

The minutes put the repatriation cost at about R80-million.  

A press conference announcing the formal decision to repatriate citizens was finally held last week Thursday. Since then, the international relations and health departments have confirmed their part in planning such an operation.

But they have not provided any further details. M&G questions this week have been referred to health department spokesperson Popo Matja, who said he was stuck in meetings.

Free State premier Sisi Ntombela had proposed another parents meeting on Tuesday. But she later postponed the meeting with no clear reason given.

First SA Covid-19 case confirmed

The National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) on Thursday confirmed South Africa’s first case of Covid-19 infection. The person had travelled to Italy with his wife as part of a group of 10 and arrived back in South Africa on March 1.

After displaying symptoms associated with the flu, the 38-year-old man consulted a doctor and was tested positive for the virus.

“The patient has been self-isolating since March 3. The couple has two children. The emergency operating centre has identified the contacts … The tracer team has been deployed to KwaZulu-Natal with epidemiologists and clinicians from NICD. The doctor has been self-isolated as well,” read the health department’s statement.

On Thursday afternoon in a sitting of Parliament, Health Minister Zweli Mkhize advised South Africans to stay calm, saying: “We must not allow panic to set in.” — Sabelo Skiti