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LISTEN | 'I would be going home leaving everything behind' — South Africans stuck in Wuhan

South African teacher Roxanne Rawlins and her Ukrainian fiancé Luri Prinich face an uncertain future in Wuhan.
South African teacher Roxanne Rawlins and her Ukrainian fiancé Luri Prinich face an uncertain future in Wuhan.
Image: Roxanne Rawlins

Financial concerns, limited food supplies, intensified lockdowns and conflicting emotions: two South Africans caught up in the coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak in China have shared their thoughts as they prepare to be evacuated.

“I am very excited to go home and have mixed feelings because I will be leaving my Ukrainian fiancé behind, but we made a decision that if either of us could leave, we should,” Wuhan-based English teacher Roxanne Rawlins told TimesLIVE on Wednesday.

Health minister Zweli Mkhize told a news briefing on Sunday that the South African government was organising the evacuation of its citizens from the coronavirus epicentre of Wuhan as a precautionary and voluntary process. Between 147 and 151 South African citizens may be repatriated.

Rawlins said she left her apartment in the city on December 27 to visit her fiancé for the holidays. He lives on the premises of another school in Wuhan, where he cares for the horses.


“I never imaged that I would never be able to return to my apartment,” she said.

“I would be going home leaving everything behind, besides the stuff that I packed for vacation. It’s been emotional and frustrating but we are just trying to focus on the positive.”

Rawlins said in the early stages of the lockdown, they were still allowed to go out to supermarkets, but since the lockdown had intensified, they need a special permit, which they do not possess.  

“Most online stores don’t deliver food at this time. It has really been difficult. We are not starving, but we are running out of supplies and we are not sure when the lockdown will end. Initially we thought that the lockdown will end for the public on February 28, but it seems like it has been moved to March 10 and it might be moved again.”

Rawlins said when the offer came from the South African government to be evacuated, she realised she had to make use of the opportunity.  

“The situation has changed for us in terms of supplies and also movement restrictions has increased [sic].”

Roxanne Rawlins and her Ukrainian fiancé Luri Prinich at a Walmart in Wuhan, before a lockdown that has prevented them from leaving his apartment.
Roxanne Rawlins and her Ukrainian fiancé Luri Prinich at a Walmart in Wuhan, before a lockdown that has prevented them from leaving his apartment.
Image: Roxanne Rawlins

Rawlins said she had not been earning a salary since the lockdown because her school has a strict “no work, no pay” policy.  

“Summer vacation starts in June and we are supposed to get married in August. There are just so many unknowns at this stage. I do not think this would let us automatically lose our jobs, but I think that it does mean that once I leave and am unable to return, then essentially I will lose my job,” she said.

Rawlins was concerned that this could also prevent her from gaining another job in the Asian country. She said without a release letter from one's employer in China, one could not start a new job.

“My school may see this as a breach in contract and not give me a release letter, which would essentially mean that I would be blacklisted from working here. For now, that’s on the back burner. The thing we need to focus on is our safety and getting back to our families — and getting married and making decisions going forward,” she said.

Another South African stuck in Wuhan, Joss Potgieter, said she is excited about being reunited with her family.

Potgieter said they had been under lockdown for the past five weeks and it had intensified in the last two weeks.

“I have not been able to leave my apartment for that period of time. The only time when I do leave is to go downstairs and throw thrash away or pay for food that has arrived from the community manager,” she said.

“Other than that, it is absolutely dead and the city is very quiet. The only noises you hear are those of police cars and ambulances. There is also a train running near the apartment. You don’t really see anybody, except the guards and the community managers.”

Once back on home soil, returning South Africans will be under military escort and quarantined at a secret location for 21 days to ensure they are not infected with the virus. The exact date of the flight has not been disclosed by authorities.

The Black Mountain leisure and conference hotel in Thaba Nchu, in the Free State, has been mooted as a possible coronavirus quarantine zone for the repatriated citizens, according to a report in the Citizen, citing a communique by Cosatu provincial secretary Monyatso Mahlatsi. He could not immediately comment on Wednesday, saying he was in meetings.

Meanwhile, South African Tourism (SAT) said it had “no plans” to postpone or cancel Africa’s Travel Indaba 2020, which is expected to take place from May 12 to 14.

“The Covid-19 virus presents us with an unprecedented set of circumstances that are changing on a day-to-day basis. We will continue to monitor the situation as it unfolds,” said the organisation's Altaaf Kazi.

The World Bank has meanwhile made available an initial package of up to $12bn (R185bn) in immediate support to assist countries coping with the health and economic impacts of the global outbreak.

“This financing is designed to help member countries take effective action to respond to and where possible lessen the tragic impacts posed by the Covid-19,” it stated.  

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