South Africa will evacuate at least 132 South Africans from Wuhan, the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak in China, President Cyril Ramaphosa has announced.
He said the government had estimated there were 199 South Africans in Wuhan, of whom 132 had decided to return at this stage.
“These compatriots are currently living under lockdown conditions following the outbreak of the coronavirus,” he said on the night of Thursday 27 February 2020. He added that none of the South Africans – apparently mostly students – had been diagnosed with the virus nor had any exhibited any symptoms of it.
On their return to South Africa, they would be placed in quarantine for 21 days “as an additional precautionary measure”. The government had decided to repatriate them “after due consideration of the circumstances, and following several requests from the families of South Africans in the city”.
Ramaphosa’s spokesperson Khusela Diko added that some of the South Africans in Wuhan had made direct representations to Pretoria for repatriation.
The Chinese embassy in Pretoria has been assuring South Africa that the South Africans in Wuhan and elsewhere in China are safe, and ambassador Lin Songtian warned last week – citing the experiences of the US, Singapore and Canada – that repatriating nationals risked importing and spreading the virus.
Pretoria at first seemed to accept these assurances. But official sources have indicated Pretoria had now decided to act, partly because of pressure from relatives but also because it did not fully accept the Chinese government’s assurances that the South Africans were safe in the city where the virus erupted last November.
Ramaphosa said the government had been in constant contact with the families of all affected individuals, and relevant government departments had made arrangements to receive them, including the departments of health and of defence which would deploy healthcare personnel and support staff to help repatriate and quarantine them. They would also receive trauma counselling.
“The World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the outbreak of the virus, which set in motion coordination efforts worldwide, as well as the implementation of strict surveillance measures, as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. The Covid-19 virus (coronavirus), was first reported in Wuhan, China in November 2019,” Ramaphosa said.
“On behalf of the government and people of South Africa, President Ramaphosa has expressed solidarity with the people and government of China,” the Presidency said.
“The president has also expressed sincere gratitude to the Chinese government and people for their assistance and support during this period and reiterated South Africa’s confidence in China’s ability to control the outbreak of the virus, as evidenced by amongst others, the commendable progress made to date,” he said.
Last week Chinese ambassador Lin said there were about 3,000 South African students studying in China, of whom 165 were in Wuhan or elsewhere in Hubei province, of which it is the capital. He gave the assurance they were safe, though, like everyone else in the province, they were subject to severe restrictions on their movement to prevent the virus from spreading. This was necessary, as China was “in wartime, fighting this epidemic”.
At that point only 27 of the millions of foreigners in China had been confirmed as having the virus, two of whom had died, he said.
“We try our best to defeat and contain the virus within our territory. China has taken the most comprehensive and rigorous measures to prevent and control the epidemic so as to resolutely contain the spread of the disease and defeat the virus within China,” Lin said.
A combination of factors seems to have changed Pretoria’s mind, including pressure from relatives of some of the South Africans in Hubei, according to the Mail & Guardian, which Ramaphosa’s statement also suggested.
South African officials have also questioned Beijing’s explanation for advising against evacuation.
“The Chinese discourage evacuations because they reckon it makes them look bad. It sends a message that they’re not able to manage the crisis,” an official said.
“The SA government would be extremely reckless to fold its arms and do nothing. If South Africans start dying over there, the media will be the first to blame government for not doing enough for its citizens.”
The Mail & Guardian story suggested the government was investigating an army base in Free State as a possible quarantine centre and reported that the whole operation of evacuation and quarantine had been budgeted to cost some R80-million.
According to the Chinese embassy, as of Wednesday 26 February, 2,744 people have died from the coronavirus, out of a total of 78,497 confirmed cases, while 32,495 people had recovered from the disease. DM