Fear, ignorance stalks returnees from Wuhan

Ignorance and fear among residents and politicians near proposed quarantine sites has caused deep levels of panic and uncertainty about the spread of the novel coronavirus disease (Covid-19). This is despite the government’s careful plans for the repatriation of South Africans from the epicentre, Wuhan in China.

Much of the world has introduced restrictions to try to slow the spread of the disease. Restricted travel is in place in parts of Asia, Europe and the United States. Schools have closed, conferences and sports events have been postponed or cancelled. The World Health Organisation (WHO) this week declared Covid-19 a pandemic. Italy, where more than 800 people have died and about 12500 people are infected, has gone into full lockdown. On Thursday, the only places open to 60-million people were supermarkets and pharmacies.

At 7pm on Thursday 12 March, South Africa had 16 cases of Covid-19. Some schools in the Western Cape have closed.

The chatter in taxis, offices and schools is about the coronavirus and exhibit a sense of uncertainty.

The imminent arrival of a plane-load of asymptomatic South Africans from Wuhan in China has prompted misgivings by the ANC Youth League in Limpopo, where the 122 returnees are to be quarantined.

Of the returnees, 80 are students, 20 are teachers and 22 are in other jobs. The government says about 4000 South Africans work and study in China.

According to a report submitted to the justice, crime prevention and security cluster (JCPS) on February 25, the costs associated with the repatriation, quarantine and reunification phase were expected to be close to R80-million. The amount was also expected to change, depending on circumstances. President Cyril Ramaphosa told Parliament last week that the estimated expenditure was about R25-million.

The government had initially planned to quatantine them at Black Mountain resort in Maria Moroka Nature Reserve near Thaba Nchu in the Free State. But staff members were being victimised by residents in the area for their association with the potential quarantine site. In addition the owner wanted a payment of R20-million for loss of business, but any revenue generated post the quarantine period would be paid back to the government.

Now they will be in quarantine in Limpopo. Health Minister Zweli Mkhize and ANC deputy secretary general Jessie Duarte met ANC top brass in the province to convince them to accept the government’s decision.

The JCPS, which consists of ministers Ronald Lamola (justice), Bheki Cele (police), Aaron Motsoaledi (home affairs), Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula (defence), Ayanda Dlodlo (state security) and Tito Mboweni (finance), supported the repatriation after being told that the National Joint Operational and Intelligence Structure (Nat Joints) had developed a comprehensive plan. The cluster was also told that the government was legally obliged to support citizens who may be “in mortal danger” abroad.


The Nat Joints had weighed two options — to repatriate or not to — based on risk and mitigation factors. One of the major considerations in terms of risk discussed at the February 25 meeting was: “Importing of the coronavirus from China and possibility of non-cooperation of communities because of anxiety due to the perception of introducing Corona virus in the country”.

The Cabinet then approved the repatriation of “asymptomatic” South Africans from Wuhan and for them to be placed under quarantine. The decision was recently taken that the quarantine site would be The Ranch Resort, 25km from Polokwane.

Government sources said it will cost the state an estimated R6.7-million, excluding meals, to host the 122 people who will be quarantined there for up to 21 days.

The Polokwane International Airport is said to be big enough to handle the Airbus A340-600 chartered from SAA to fly in the Wuhan evacuees. But government has not confirmed the aircraft will land there.

The Mail & Guardian reported in February that South African National Defence Force officials had visited Thaba Nchu and the Tempe Military Base near Bloemfontein to assess their suitability for screening people for Covid-19 and putting them in quarantine after a request from the department of international relations and co-operation for evacuation assistance.

The M&G understands there was also concern that the landing strip near Black Mountain would not accommodate the Airbus.

Government communications director general Phumla Williams would not comment on the specifics of accommodating those being repatriated, but did say that no less than 80 sites across the country had been considered.

“We did not lose [the Free State venue]. As we indicated, the team explored various venues based on the proximity, size required and, of course, the cost in terms of affordability,” she said. “We can confirm that we visited over 80 possible venues. We finally agreed on this one, which we will share with South Africans at the appropriate time.”

Last weekend the Sunday Times quoted government communications as saying intimidation of potential service providers, as well as employees at Black Mountain, was making it difficult for the government to conclude plans.

And a government official said: “They [Black Mountain] argued that post the 21 days they won’t get clients because people will be scared away by the possibility of getting the virus from their premises. Accordingly they demanded compensation for a further 12 months of possible business loss.”

This week, Black Mountain’s general manager, Peter Leornard, said they were unable to reach a satisfactory agreement with the government guaranteeing the protection of employees.

“We absolutely reject the insinuation that there has been an attempt to increase pricing as part of those discussions … Black Mountain was justifiably concerned about the potential future impact on its business of accepting this responsibility. In that context Black Mountain sought trade loss compensation to cover the cost of operating the resort for up to 12 months (from the start date of the use of the resort as a quarantine facility) on the basis that any revenue generated by the resort during the compensation period would then be reimbursed to the government. In other words, if the resort was not adversely impacted the government would recover the trade loss contribution,” said Leornard.

ANC youth wing concerned

The youth league’s provincial task team for Limpopo province said in a press statement: “Our bone of contention as the ANCYL in Peter Mokaba is that the first site which was identified is the Free State, and now that the Free State has reneged, Limpopo province was seen to be a ‘low hanging fruit’ to play host to the patients’.”

ANC spokesperson Pule Mabe said that Duarte and Mkhize had visited the province to allay such fears. “It [the visit] is to brief structures and make sure we are all at one in terms of the approach that is being taken by our own government to deal with the outbreak. It is also to make sure there is an overall appreciation of the efforts that are being undertaken by our government to deal with the pandemic,” said Mabe.

Correction: On Thursday 12 March 2020, 20:45, this story was edited to reflect the updated tally of confirmed Covid-19 cases in South Africa. Earlier in the day, the department of health had announced the country’s first locally transmitted case but has since apologised for the error.


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Thanduxolo Jika
Thanduxolo Jika

Thanduxolo Jika is an investigative Journalist and Co-Author of We are going to kill each other today:The Marikana Story. The Messiah of Abantu.

Sabelo Skiti

Sabelo Skiti is an investigative journalist.

Chris Gilili
Chris Gilili is an Open Society Fellow in Investigative Reporting at Wits University. Currently spending six months with the Mail and Guardian in the Investigations desk. He started journalism with Independent Media’s vernacular publication, I’solezwe LesiXhosa in East London. He has freelanced for publications such as GroundUp and Workers World Media.
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