/ 26 February 2020

Coronavirus: South Africa will evacuate citizens from Wuhan

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After significant deliberations, the government has decided to evacuate South Africans from Wuhan in China, the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak. The evacuation and subsequent quarantine is estimated to cost R80-million. 

The government is expected to make an announcement about its plans to repatriate South Africans on Thursday.

The Mail & Guardian understands from sources close to the discussions that 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) — has agreed to repatriate citizens from Wuhan in Hubei province, where Covid-19 broke out in January. 

There are 199 South Africans in Wuhan, of which 132 have asked to be evacuated and 13 have chosen not to leave, according to the department of international relations and co-operation. A further 54 people are yet to be traced. 

The decision follows an interministerial sub-committee, the National Joint Operational and Intelligence Structure (Nat Joints), offering two options — leave or stay — for South Africans in China, where Covid-19 has claimed more than 2 500 lives. 

According to confidential reports circulating among senior government officials, Nat Joints has crafted a contingency plan and identified quarantine facilities for the returning citizens. “The decision to repatriate is in the interest of South African citizens in Wuhan … measures have been put in place to avoid the spread of the virus in the country,” said a note seen by the M&G. The full cost of this, according to the reports, would be R80-million. 

A further consideration was the constitutional rights of South Africans in Wuhan. The government is legally obliged to support citizens who may be in “mortal danger” abroad.  

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

Last week the M&G reported that the government had considered either evacuating its citizens or leaving them in China. The evacuation option prompted concerns about South Africa’s capacity to handle Covid-19, and the risk of an outbreak in the country. 

READ MORE: Stay in China, government tells homesick South Africans

International relations and health departments officials travelled to Bloemfontein to urge the parents of children studying in Wuhan to allow the Chinese authorities to look after them. 

International relations’ director of consular services, Chris Chetty, said China had better medical services to deal with Covid-19 and said no one would be brought back to South Africa. This angered many of the parents.

The M&G has also reported that the International relations department had requested the South African National Defence Force to assist it with the evacuation. Defence force officials visited Thaba Nchu and the Tempe Military base near Bloemfontein to assess its suitability for purposes of quarantine and screening people for Covid-19. 

Parents of students in different parts of China have vowed to challenge the government if it doesn’t evacuate their children. 

“If the government says our children are not in danger, why not bring them back home? Why keep them with infected people, if they don’t pose any danger? We want to see [international relations minister] Naledi Pandor and the president,” said Sinah Moeketsi, mother of Mosa Ramaru. “I don’t think there is anyone in their right minds, who would want to remain in danger and locked in. Those kids are panicking there. This thing about them being safe and calm is a lie.” 

The Chinese embassy in Pretoria has invited the parents of students in China to a discussion with the ambassador, Lin Songtain, next Tuesday. “I am very happy to inform you that all the South African students in China are safe, without a single case of infection. The Chinese governments and the universities are giving priority to the safety of international students in China and have been doing all they can to guarantee their daily supplies during this difficult period,” read the invitation from the embassy.

Lin will give a brief about the situation in China, the measures taken against the virus  and the progress achieved, including what has been done so far to provide for the needs of the students.

Facts and figures about Covid-19

What is a coronavirus?

There are many different kinds of coronaviruses, according to the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD). Some affect birds and mammals, including humans. In people it is usually associated with upper respiratory tract illnesses such as the common cold.

But sometimes the viruses jump from animals to humans — severe acute respiratory syndrome or SARS was thought to have come from civets; about 800 people died. The current outbreak of Covid-19 is spreading far more rapidly than SARS and killing many more people.

The name corona refers to the crown-like sugary protein “spikes” projecting above the surface when viewed under an electron microscope.

Covid-19: A few facts

On January 9, the World Health Organisation (WHO) reported that a new coronavirus had been identified in China, associated with dozens of cases of pneumonia of unknown cause in Wuhan, Hubei province. The coronavirus disease

is named Covid-19 and severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) is the name of the new virus.

Initially a majority of those affected were dealers and vendors at a seafood, poultry and live wildlife market in the Jianghan District of Wuhan city in Hubei Province. The source of the virus is not known yet.

Kerrigan McCarthy, of the NICD, said: “The virus starts with common cold or fever, sore throat, shortness of breath among other early symptoms. With early detection and proper treatment, the majority of people get better from the virus.

It is very similar to the common cold and literature written on it suggests that it has a high mortality rate.”

She added that there’s currently a low risk of infection in South Africa.

South Africa is prepared

South Africa has undertaken readiness measures to ensure detection, referral and management of cases. The department of international relations and co-operation has said that it has introduced screening and testing at all international airports for people who have travelled outside the country. There have been no confirmed cases of coronavirus in South Africa. It’s been reported that surveillance has been actively put in certain places to detect should any case occur. The NICD advises that people who develop symptoms of respiratory illness within 14 days of travel to countries where Covid-19 is known to be circulating should seek medical care.

South Africa has trained more than 1500 healthcare professionals on the Covid-19 virus.

On March 3 the NICD will host an information session for businesses, occupational health practitioners and others concerned about the disease.

How does the virus spread?

The virus is spread from person to person through respiratory droplets when an infected person coughs or sneezes. In most people the illness is mild.

The WHO advises that you wash your hands with soap; avoid
touching your eyes and nose; keep a distance of about a metre from people coughing and sneezing; sneeze into your elbow or tissue;
if you feel mildly ill, stay at home, but if you have a fever, cough and difficulty breathing, get medical help.

In most cases people who have been infected have been in close contact with people who have Covid-19, including health workers.

Stats about Covid-19

Some 82000 people have been infected worldwide and more than 2800 have died as of Wednesday, February 26, according to the WHO.

More than 40 people have died outside of mainland China.

Since the outbreak of Covid-19 3387 medical practitioners in China — 90% of them residents of the country — contracted the virus.

Dr Li Wenliang was one of the first to raise the alarm about the virus. He died on February 7 after succumbing to the disease.

The first case of Covid-19 in Africa was reported in Egypt and the second in Algeria.

(John McCann/M&G)