A hundred and fifty-one SA National Defence Force (SANDF) personnel are deployed in the government effort to bring home South Africans currently in Wuhan, China, epicentre of the COVID-19 outbreak.
In a letter to the Speaker of Parliament, President Cyril Ramaphosa, Commander-in-Chief of the national defence force, writes the soldiers, believed to be mainly SA Military Health Service (SAMHS) staff, “are employed in support of DIRCO (Department of International Relations and Co-operation) and the national Department of Health in facilitating repatriation of South African citizens”.
A chartered Airbus A340-600 aircraft from the embattled national carrier, SAA, left OR Tambo International airport on Tuesday bound for the People’s Republic of China. The flight crew are from SAA and the medical crew on board are from the SANDF. It will land in the Philippines for a scheduled fuel stop and then proceed to Wuhan.
Reports have it the South Africans there who want to return – none of who are apparently infected – will board and the aircraft proceed back to South Africa. Flight and cabin crew as well as SAHMS and other government personnel will not leave the aircraft while it is on the ground in China.
It is not yet known when and where the aircraft will land in South Africa or where all aboard will be taken for the 21 day quarantine period.
Ramaphosa, joined by Zweli Mkhize, Minister of Health and Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, Minister of Defence and Military Veterans, saw off SANDF members travelling to Wuhan at OR Tambo International Airport on Tuesday.
The President told the soldiers he remains proud of them in this important mission to bring back 121 South Africans. He said their patriotism was most touching to the nation.
“We are here with Ministers of Health and Defence to say thank you. Thank you to our soldiers for undertaking this mission. We are delighted you heeded the order to repatriate fellow South Africans in China,” he said.
“You are our patriots. We are proud of you. This is an important mission for the nation. We will be looking to you to execute this mission to bring our young people back home.” The President added “the people we are bringing back are all healthy and not sick, we need to make that clear to the nation. We are not fetching disease, we are bringing back healthy young people whose parents reached out to us.”
Ramaphosa thanked SANDF Chief General Solly Shoke and the Military Command for taking on the task and preparing for the mission. “I want to thank the Minister of Defence for guidance and leadership,” he said.
Democratic Alliance (DA) shadow defence and military veterans minister Kobus Marais told defenceWeb the 151 number given by Ramaphosa included SAMHS medical and operational personnel as well as soldiers tasked with providing security at the quarantine venue.
“There is no breakdown of numbers per service, for example Army (for guarding) and Military Health or the actual medical disciplines,” he said.
The site selected for quarantine will not only be guarded by soldiers on ground level – indications are it will also be a no-fly zone for general aviation. No Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) has yet been issued by the SA Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA).
Defence expert and Director of African Defence Review Darren Olivier said charter of the aircraft to Wuhan likely accounts for at least 10 of the R25 million total cost quoted for the repatriation and quarantine, as that’s what SAA charged the SA Air Force for previous A340-600 charters over similar times and distances.