Flight to to evacuate South Africans in Wuhan finally underway

After a month of back-and-forth discussion about repatriating South African citizens living in Wuhan, the epicentre of the Covid-19 outbreak, the 122 citizens will be brought back on a flight leaving tonight. 

When the Mail & Guardian first reported on the request by citizens to return home, the government said there was no plan in place. This subsequently changed, as pressure grew to return the citizens and after deliberation among the interministerial task team mandated to co-ordinate the government’s response to the viral outbreak. A Cabinet decision, which the M&G has seen, noted that the repatriation could cost R80-million and that the government is legally obliged to support citizens who might be in “mortal danger” abroad.  

The M&G reported last week that the flight was delayed because military officials were unwilling to risk the trip. A senior source said: “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 South African National Defence Force, however, rejected this claim. 

With this situation seemingly resolved, a Presidency statement said the flight will leave at 9pm tonight and be seen off by President Cyril Ramaphosa. Although 180 people had initially asked to be repatriated, the number has dropped to 122.

The statement said: “On board the flight will be the flight crew from the aircraft company and a total of 15 officials from the department of health and the department of defence (military health).”

The flight plan

The flight would stop over in the Philippines to refuel and to restock foodstuffs before going on to Wuhan. Chinese and South African embassy officials will then screen the people who want to be repatriated and check their travel documents. That flight will then return to South Africa, where the people will be quarantined for “an initial period” of 21 days, “which may be extended should any person display symptoms of Covid-19 at the identified site”.

People who are not displaying symptoms after the 21 days will be “re-integrated [into their] communities and will be reunited with their families”. 

The quarantine plan will be shared “at an appropriate time”. The statement did not disclose where people will be kept in quarantine. 

The repatriation is being overseen 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).

South Africa joins several other African countries, among them Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Madagascar and Mauritius, that have repatriated their citizens.

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Sipho Kings
Sipho is the Mail & Guardian's News Editor. He also does investigative environment journalism.
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