An aircraft has been secured for the repatriation of 184 South African citizens from Wuhan, China, amid the global outbreak of the Covid-19 virus, but South African National Defence Force (SANDF) crew members are refusing to make the potentially dangerous journey.
On Friday, Mail & Guardian (M&G) reported that a senior official intimately familiar with the discussions said defence force personnel were unwilling to man the aircraft.
The plane is set to bring back the group of South Africans – they include teachers and other professionals currently working in Wuhan – the city from which the deadly virus originates, News24 reported.
Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize said at a briefing on Sunday the operation would be conducted over a period of seven to 10 days.
But, according to M&G, these plans have now allegedly been hamstrung by reluctant defence force personnel.
Fear the risk
“We do have an aircraft ready to go. But there are no warm bodies who want to go to China, as they fear the risk,” the senior official reportedly said.
According to the source, no one can be forced if they don’t want to go. The delay has reportedly been caused by the military, which has advised against the evacuation.
SANDF spokesperson Siphiwe Dlamini told M&G that he is not aware of the situation and that everything is in place as has been planned.
In a statement issued on Thursday, Government Communication and Information System (GCIS) said: “The aircraft with the capacity to bring back the citizens in Wuhan has been secured. An interdisciplinary team of relevant departments including Health, Home Affairs, Social Development and the Defence Force will form part of the repatriation team from China to South Africa. They will be working with the Chinese authorities to screen the group of South Africans before they depart the epicentre of Wuhan.
“With the support of the South African Embassy in China, a ground transport plan is being put in place to ensure that all citizens who are to be evacuated are safely brought to a central collection point from where they will be transported home.
Negotiations not concluded
“Negotiations with a number of service providers to serve as a quarantine area have not yet been concluded. At this stage, the technical team is working hard to finalise this critical area of work and there is no specific venue that has been confirmed. We can, however, reassure that this work will be concluded in the not so distant future.”
In his Sunday briefing, Mkhize clarified that the citizens returning from Wuhan had not tested positive for Covid-19 and that they will be quarantined for a further 21-day period upon their arrival.
South Africa reported its first case of Covid-19 in KwaZulu-Natal on Thursday.
In a statement, Mkhize said the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) confirmed a positive test of a 38-year-old man who travelled to Italy as part of a group of 10 people.
They returned to South Africa on 1 March.
The man tested positive on 3 March and has been in self-isolation since. It is understood his doctor and his family are also in quarantine.
A tracer team has since been deployed to KwaZulu-Natal with epidemiologists and clinicians from the NICD.
Worldwide, nearly 100 000 people have been infected with SARS-CoV-2 and almost 3 400 deaths have been reported, according to the World Health Organisation.