Plans to repatriate South Africans from Wuhan 'at an advanced stage'

Steps to fly home South Africans who are living in Wuhan, the coronavirus epicentre in China, are well in hand, the military confirmed on Tuesday.

“Once all the logistics have been confirmed by the planners of the operation, the repatriation process will commence,” the department of defence said.

“The repatriation planning process is at an advanced stage and takes into consideration everything related to the logistics.”

The department, in particular the defence force, is part of a multidisciplinary team  involving the departments of health and international relations.

Health minister Zweli Mkhize told a news briefing on Sunday that the evacuation from Wuhan was precautionary and voluntary. Between 147 and 151 South African citizens may be repatriated.

“Among these are students who have completed studies and students whose studies were interrupted by the lockdown,” said Mkhize.

The evacuation would be undertaken in co-operation with Chinese authorities.

“All South African citizens from Wuhan City who wish to be repatriated will be accommodated and brought back in a chartered aircraft under strict quarantine protocols that will be enforced,” said Mkhize.

“There will be a multidisciplinary medical team aboard the aircraft that will be responsible for pre- and in-flight screening and medical care. All nationals who do not meet the medical screening requirements during pre-screening will be referred to the Chinese health system.

“A port of entry has been prepared for the receipt of South African nationals, flight crew and medical team.

“All support staff coming into direct contact with the repatriates will also fall into the quarantine protocol. The South Africans will be quarantined when they arrive.

“The very nature of the quarantine exercise is to isolate a group of Covid-negative people who have been exposed to a high-risk environment, remove them from that high-risk environment and then allow the determined incubation period to lapse before being integrated into ... society. Human contact and mixing of groups will be limited in the entire process,” said Mkhize.

“Ultimately, we must remember that we are dealing with a group of healthy people who had built lives in Wuhan but found themselves disrupted by an extraordinary situation,” he said.

“As this operation unfolds, it is most important to protect their safety and dignity, and also public safety. Our citizens have been through a lot already in Wuhan, but they have conducted themselves with incredible stoicism and solidarity with the Chinese, co-operating with Chinese regulation and authority. Their dignified manner of partnering with China and also ourselves through the embassies should set an example and tone for the rest of us to follow as we engage in this process in the interest of public safety.”

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