The first evacuation flight of South Africans stranded abroad by the coronavirus lockdown arrived at Johannesburg’s OR Tambo International Airport today, with just eight people on board who had spent an uncomfortable eight days at Dubai airport.
Earlier in the day, the first batch of foreigners who had been stranded in South Africa, more than 300 Brazilians as well as a few other South American passengers, left OR Tambo on a Latam Airlines flight for Sao Paulo, Brazil.
The inward and outward rescue flights were the first since Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula eased the complete ban on all flights which he had imposed last Wednesday. He had announced on Tuesday 31 March that incoming evacuation flights would be allowed, but only for South Africans who had valid return tickets.
He also cleared outward evacuation flights, but again stipulated that only foreign aircrews would be allowed in on those flights and no passengers.
Emirates Airlines and Dubai airport – which was also under lockdown – responded immediately to the relaxation of the South African ban by arranging to fly home four South African couples who had been stranded in the airport since last Tuesday after flying in from holiday in Maldives.
One of the eight – a Johannesburger who did not want to be named – said they were the only passengers on Flight EK761 although the aircraft was also carrying cargo.
Mbalula had also announced on Tuesday that he was lifting the restriction on non-essential incoming air cargo.
The passenger said that on arrival at OR Tambo the eight were whisked off to a government facility in Midrand to be quarantined, probably for 14 days. She said the facility was fine. They were expecting to have swab tests for the coronavirus on Thursday, having also been tested before embarkation in Dubai.
The passenger said the four couples had been on holiday at separate resorts in the Maldives and had met at the airport on their return journey. They had been stuck in Dubai airport by the abrupt closures of both that and OR Tambo airports.
They spent eight nights sleeping in airport chairs, in a hotel at their own expense and then in one at the expense of the airport, which was comfortable.
“I feel very relieved to be home. There was a lot of uncertainty and we thought we might be stuck there until after the lockdown,” she said.
Meanwhile, Brazil’s ambassador to South Africa, Nedilson Jorge, told Daily Maverick that an aircraft of Latam Airlines had left OR Tambo early on Wednesday morning carrying more than 300 Brazilian nationals. He had earlier said it would also carry some other South American nationals, who had prior tickets. Though Latam does fly the Johannesburg-Sao Paulo route, this aircraft had been diverted from a flight home from Jakarta, Indonesia.
“This has been the first repatriation flight to leave SA since the beginning of the lockdown,” the Brazilian embassy tweeted. It also tweeted thanks to the South African government and the Airports Company of SA (Acsa) for their support. Acsa replied, “We are glad that we were able to assist and we thank @BrazilEmbassySA for the exceptional manner in which it has handled the repatriation. To those who have returned home, we wish you well.”
In response came a plaintive tweet from Robson Luiz Soares: “Please don’t let us here in Cape Town. We need support.”
It was originally expected that the Latam flight would depart from Johannesburg to Cape Town to collect more Brazilians before continuing to Sao Paulo. However, Jorge told Daily Maverick he was trying to arrange a charter flight for about 200 remaining Brazilians which would fly from Johannesburg to Cape Town and then Sao Paulo.
He also said that this charter flight could collect stranded South Africans in Sao Paulo and bring them home. On Tuesday Mbalula said this arrangement would also be possible.
The German embassy is arranging for a fleet of SAA aircraft to repatriate between 7,000 and 9,000 Germans and other Europeans stranded in South Africa, and German ambassador Martin Schaefer has said South Africans stranded in Europe could return on these flights.
Darren Bergman, the DA MP and shadow minister for international relations, who has been representing the interests and conveying the appeals for repatriation of 1,481 South Africans stranded all over the world, welcomed the eight passengers returning from Dubai in a statement in which he also thanked International Relations and Cooperation Minister Naledi Pandor for getting them home.
He said the return of the eight was “an emotional celebration” for the Home Away From Home project which he and all the stranded passengers launched at the weekend to try to get home.
He said the eight had been left without their luggage and sleeping on the airport floor for a few days until other arrangements had been made.
“No fingers could be pointed anywhere because Covid-19 was the enemy and countries and embassies were in new territory here. However, we knew we had to push.
“Our project has created a platform that documents our travellers abroad and gives them a platform to state where in the world they are and the condition they are in. From the start, we made it our objective to work through the state machinery of Dirco and support the president and Minister Pandor, and it seems our faith had not gone to waste.
“Our project is clear that we do believe that all people returning to South Africa need to be confined to strict quarantine for 21 days and that visibly sick people should be hospitalised in the country they were found instead of boarding the flight.
“Over the next few days we hope that Dirco and the minister can do their best to bring back as many of the over 1,481 stranded South African people and that when we look back on this lockdown, one of the most important actions we recognise is how we treated our own, when they were locked outside the gates trying to get in.
“To Minister Pandor, thank you for delivering the good news stories at a time when we need them most.”
Other stranded South Africans are trying to arrange charter flights or to persuade airlines to put on special flights to bring them home. DM