The 114 South Africans evacuated by the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) from China’s COVID19-hit Wuhan City touched down in Polokwane, in Limpopo, on Saturday.
The group arrived shortly after 10:30am on a South African Airways (SAA) flight. About 20 minutes after landing, the first passenger disembarked the aircraft and was swiftly escorted to one of the four especially equipped busses.
The South Africans, who have tested negative and not shown any symptoms of COVID19, were then driven to The Ranch Hotel, about 30km away from the airport.
There is a heavy police and military presence in and around the hotel.
Soon after landing, dramatic footage showed how what is believed to be seven military staff in white protective gear placed cones around the area of disembarkation to the waiting busses.
Luggage was soon retrieved from the aircraft’s compartment and loaded into the busses close to the runway. An ambulance was also on standby nearby.
The first bus left the runway at 11.55am.
The South Africans will now be under quarantine for the next 21 days at The Ranch Hotel.
Minister of Health Zweli Mkhize said he was glad the repatriation had been a success.
Cabinet last month directed the Departments of Health, Defence and International Relations to assist on a humanitarian basis to help bring back the students, teachers and citizens stuck in the city which has been the epicentre of the Coronavirus pandemic.
“These people were there for work, business and study purposes. When the outbreak started, they were caught up in a lockdown where the whole region was closed down, you couldn’t leave the area.”
Initially, he said, government thought it was going to be for only a short time. “But after a while we started having challenges because some of the students went on holiday and others started having anxiety and wanted to come back home,” said Mkhize.
He said government was pleased with how the Chinese government was handling the groups.
He further clarified that the group had never been treated for the virus and did not have the symptoms.
“All we are doing is just bringing them home,” he said, explaining that quarantining the group was just a precautionary measure by government to ensure that the group was indeed free of the illness.
Speaking to eNCA, Department of Health spokesperson Popo Maja said the 18-man crew that repatriated the South Africans from China will also be in quarantined at the Ranch Hotel.
“The crew is going to be quarantined as well, over and above the South Africans on board. Everybody who is on that flight will be quarantined.
“… Everyone who will be on the busses has maintained their seats. They will be given colour codes so when they get to the facility they can be directed to their rooms accordingly,” he said.
Health Deputy Minister Joe Phaahla in a recorded message welcoming back the group to the country, said government was pleased the mission had been a success.
“We are excited that you are all back home. We have all been crossing our fingers hoping that everything will go well. We are excited to see that the plane has touched down, that you are moving into the hotel. We are optimistic that, indeed, despite the trying times, you will have a good time and complete your quarantine time and be reunited with your families. We wish you all the best,” he said.
In a written message, posted by Mkhize, an evacuee thanked the rescue team for embarking on the mission.
“[We] can’t thank you enough for taking this beautiful huge risk. I’m sure some of your families disagreed with your decision but regardless of that you came to fetch us (sic),” said the unidentified evacuee. “I personally don’t have the words to thank all of you.”
“We may not be able to pay you back for this but there’s someone above us who sees our work and bless us abundantly. We’re really happy to be home,” read the hand written note. “Thank you for taking care of us. Your names will always be part of our history. May God bless you and your families.”