The SA government has yet to contact 34 people to determine whether they also want to be repatriated from Wuhan, China. Picture: GALLO IMAGES/AFP/BERND THISSEN
The SA government has yet to contact 34 people to determine whether they also want to be repatriated from Wuhan, China. Picture: GALLO IMAGES/AFP/BERND THISSEN

The number of SA citizens wanting to be repatriated from Wuhan, China, the epicentre of the deadly coronavirus outbreak, has increased by 19 to 151, health minister Zweli Mkhize said on Sunday.

This comes after President Cyril Ramaphosa last week ordered the evacuation of 132 citizens in Wuhan who want to return to SA.

Ramaphosa said the cabinet had decided on this course of action after due consideration of the circumstances and “following several requests from the families of South Africans in the city”.

None of the affected people had been diagnosed with the virus or shown any symptoms of the disease, he said.

The South Africans have been confined to Wuhan since mid-January after Chinese authorities imposed a strict quarantine to try to contain the spread of the virus, known as Covid-19, which has disrupted global trade and hammered financial markets.

In a media briefing in Johannesburg on Sunday that was attended by home affairs minister Aaron Motsoaledi, social development minister Lindiwe Zulu and officials from the department of international relations and the SA National Defence Force, Mkhize said of the about 201 South Africans living in the Wuhan area, 151 “have indicated their wish to be repatriated”.

The increase is based on the SA government “calling people every day” to inquire about their health and whether they would like to come home.

He said 16 citizens have indicated that they do not wish to be repatriated, and that they are trying to locate the remaining 34 to find out if they wanted to return.

Three-week SA quarantine

Mkhize would not give a date for the repatriation, but said they believe all the people will be brought back simultaneously.

The citizens would be quarantined for 21 days before being reunified with their families.

The SA military, the department of international relations and Chinese authorities will carry out the evacuation, and a port of entry has been prepared for their return.

“The defence force will deal with the modalities of transporting people and bringing them home. The military will decide where they land ... but the media won’t be allowed there.”

Mkhize said 84 quarantine sites have been inspected and that a suitable place will be chosen.

“The people we are bringing in are South Africans who are healthy, they are not infected. We are taking precautions by quarantining them. They are not coming here infected,” Mkhize said.

“The media must not whip up paranoia about South Africans who will infect people in the communities. We will identify a quarantine facility that will meet our requirements. We won’t give you the name of the place yet.”

The SA government is only focusing on repatriating those at the epicentre of the virus.

“[The evacuation] is not about telling all South Africans in China to come back, [it’s] about those at the epicentre of the virus. We are only focusing on Wuhan.”

Guarded by military

When asked about the cost of repatriation, Mkhize said: “It’s a cost that we must pay. They are entitled to come back to SA if they wish to. It’s our responsibility to look after their interests.”

Mkhize said that during the quarantine phase, those repatriated will not be allowed to exit the facility, which will be guarded by the military.

“No-one will be allowed to enter the zone — not media, not the families, not the officials wanting to inspect [the facility]. Only those assigned will be allowed entry.”

They will be tested and counselled before leaving the quarantine facility after 21 days.

The two South Africans on the Princess Diamond cruise ship who have tested positive are receiving treatment. They would be allowed to return to SA once they test negative, Mkhize said.

“We are in touch with the cruise liner ... we’ve got the names and details [of the SA crew members] and have spoken to some of them.”

Mkhize also rejected allegations that SA is not ready to deal with the outbreak.

“I don’t understand where that comes from. We have had a number of outbreaks that we have been able to deal with. Yes, there are challenges in [the] health system, but [it] doesn’t mean people are not being treated and cured,” he said.

Covid-19 has infected about 78,961 people and killed 2,791 in mainland China since it emerged late in 2019, the World Health Organisation says.

It has spread to 51 other countries, where there have been about 3,474 cases and 54 fatalities.

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