South Africa

NEWSFLASH: Coronavirus

Return from Wuhan: ‘I want to stand outside and sing. They are coming. Finally, they are coming’

Return from Wuhan: ‘I want to stand outside and sing. They are coming. Finally, they are coming’
A passenger looks out over the runway from the main viewing room of OR Tambo International Airport, Johannesburg, South Africa, 12 August 2016. (PHOTO: EPA/KIM LUDBROOK)

As Free State students in Wuhan, China, the epicentre of the Covid-19 outbreak, received the news that a plane from South Africa would depart at 9pm on Tuesday night from OR Tambo Airport in Johannesburg, they responded in true South African fashion: All wanted to go outside to sing and dance, despite the freezing temperature. 

“I feel like I can stand outside and sing. I don’t really have words to describe the sense of relief. I am just so happy,” one of the students who had been in lockdown at Wuhan University since January said. 

She was speaking to Daily Maverick just before 1am on a freezing winter morning in the dorm where she had been in lockdown since the middle of January. 

Back home in the Free State, the student’s mother was overwhelmed by the news. 

“I am so happy. I can’t wait for her to come home,” she said. 

“Go with speed, with God and bring our children back,” President Cyril Ramaphosa said in his send-off message to the evacuation plane’s crew at OR Tambo. 

South African government notices given to students said they will be screened for Covid-19 before boarding the plane and will not be allowed to board if they are sick. 

The notice added that the 17-hour flight home will be “alcohol-free.” 

The announcement also came with a waiver citizens had to sign to qualify for repatriation. 

“It should be noted that the Government incurs significant public expenditure in order to assist you and the Government reserves its rights to take any appropriate and legal action against you to safeguard the interests of South Africa and its people, as well as recover expenses in the event that you fail to comply with the conditions.” 

On Tuesday evening, South Africa’s Inter-Ministerial Task Team (IMTT) announced that plans had been finalised for the evacuation of the 122 South Africans who are at the epicentre of the Covid-19 outbreak, in Wuhan, China. 

“It must be noted that originally the Government received over 180 requests from the citizens residing in Wuhan to be repatriated back to South Africa. Over time and having made consideration of personal circumstances, some South Africans indicated to government their decision to rather stay on at their respective commitments in Wuhan,” the statement reads. 

A private chartered plane staffed by a flight crew and 15 officials from the Department of Health and the Department of Defence was scheduled to leave OR Tambo International Airport at 9pm, according to the statement, and stop over at the Philippines for refuelling and to take on food. 

“After the stop-over in the Philippines, the aircraft will fly to Wuhan City. Upon arrival, the team will work with our Chinese counterparts but also the staff of our Embassy in China, screening our repatriates and checking required travel documents. The flight will leave Wuhan City at the early hours of the morning and land back in South Africa on 13 March 2020. In due course, announcements will be made about the arrival of the South Africans home,” the statement reads. 

According to the statement, all repatriated citizens will be placed in quarantine for 21 days or longer if they display any Covid-19 symptoms. 

“We reiterate that no South Africans coming home, returning home are showing any symptoms of the Covid-19 virus. At the appropriate time, the quarantine site will be announced and the details of the site management plan will be shared with members of the public and the media. After the mandated quarantined period, those citizens who are cleared will be reintegrated to the communities and be reunited with their families,” the statement read. 

One student, however, said he and five others have removed their names from the repatriation list because they did not agree with the strict conditions for quarantine spelt out in a consent form they had to sign. The quarantine period in the consent form was stipulated as 14 days but the form also stated that government can extend it if this is deemed necessary. 

In their announcement that the plane was leaving, government said there would be three weeks of quarantine. 

“You must irrevocably agree in writing to the conditions imposed, provide the necessary waivers, and submit the duly completed questionnaire and proof of eligibility to be assisted prior to the departure of the repatriation flight. You agree not to challenge your quarantine, restrictions, possible isolation or any decisions relevant or incidental thereto. You further unconditionally agree to such further terms as may be deemed necessary to be imposed in the interest of the health and security of the public. 

“While under quarantine, you must take precautions, as directed by authorised healthcare practitioners and authorised personnel, to prevent the possible spread of this quarantine-able communicable disease to others.

“You must cooperate with the efforts of the Government authorities and state or local health authorities to contact other exposed people to prevent the possible spread of the quarantine-able communicable disease. This includes providing information regarding people you had contact with, places you visited or travelled to, and your medical history.” 

The form further states that there was no obligation on the South African government to repatriate anybody. 

“The final decision to repatriate is subject to medical, immigration, diplomatic, legal and the absolute discretion of the Government of the Republic of South Africa,” the form stated. 

They were also asked to sign a document stating: “All South African nationals residing in Hubei Province in the People’s Republic of China will be deemed to be exposed or possibly exposed to a public health risk and that could be a possible source of spread of disease as defined in the regulation relating to the surveillance and the control of notifiable medical conditions. 

“It is important to note that the condition relating to being quarantined and undergoing proposed medical examinations and/or screenings may, subject to the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996, and applicable laws, result in you being committed to an appropriate healthcare facility, isolated, and/or otherwise deprived of your liberty and other associated rights for limited periods, in the interest of the public health and security of South Africa.” 

One of the students who removed his name from the list said he believed that by the end of March Covid-19 will be a “thing of the past”. 

“I am refusing repatriation by choice. After careful deliberation with my mother I decided to stay. I am strong and I know I am right, that the end to this thing in Wuhan is in sight. Today 11 out of 15 makeshift hospitals were closed. Other students are also refusing to go. They don’t want to sign the forms as these are very binding.” 

The students also received a travel notice stating that they will be screened for Covid-19 before boarding transport to the Wuhan Tianhe International Airport. 

“A South African team will brief you on the repatriation process and verify your details. Chinese immigration officials will then process your documents. Please note that if you have a Chinese Exit Visa that expired during the lockdown of the Hubei Province, the penalties for overstaying will be waived. However, if your Exit Visa had expired before the lockdown (23 January 2020), you will face the normal penalties for your illegal stay in China. 

“After Chinese immigration and exit medical processes have been completed, a South African medical team will medically screen you before you board the aircraft. Should the medical tests reveal a COVID-19 infection or any other illness that renders you unfit to take the flight, you will be referred to the Chinese medical authorities,” the notice stated. 

The notice also warned that passengers must expect “regular screenings” on the flight and that there will be no alcohol on board. 

Government also stated in a notice that all quarantined people are allowed to communicate with their friends, families and other loved ones using the available telephone and digital resources provided at the quarantine venue.

“Since the quarantine period is difficult and stressful, family members and friends are urged to provide all the necessary support to their loved ones who will be quarantined. Those quarantined are also urged to exercise patience as this is done to protect everyone from being negatively affected by the virus. Although the use of social media will be allowed during the quarantine period, the privacy of others must be strictly respected. Social media must be used sparingly and in a responsible manner to communicate with your family and friends. 

“During this period of uncertainty, stress and panic around COVID-19 globally and also in South Africa, rumours and false information are being spread about the nature of the disease. Therefore, please refrain from spreading factually incorrect information about the disease. Please respect the privacy of those affected by the disease by not revealing their identity and personal information, especially on social media and other platforms.” MC


  • The names of the individuals interviewed have not been published to protect them.

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