South African officials will soon begin to repatriate at least 132 South Africans from Wuhan, the epicenter of the global coronavirus epidemic, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced late Thursday.
The decision contradicts official Chinese advice that foreigners in Wuhan will fare best if they remain in place. The move comes as global deaths begin to grow rapidly.
Ramaphosa's office stressed that none of the evacuees are ill.
“None of the affected individuals has been diagnosed with the virus nor have they exhibited any symptoms thereof,” a statement read.
"Upon arrival in South Africa, they will be placed in quarantine for 21 days as an additional precautionary measure. Government has been in constant communication with the families of all affected individuals and relevant departments have made the necessary arrangements to receive them,” it said.
While Ramaphosa's office did not answer numerous calls seeking comment, and did not say when people might begin to return, Health Ministry spokeswoman Dr. Lwazi Manzi told VOA that officials have one strong message for South Africans: Don’t panic.
“People must absolutely not panic,” she said. “We're not bringing back here people who have coronavirus. These are people who are very well, who are fine. Nobody has coronavirus. There are people who have requested to come home for various reasons. Some of them are students who have finished their studies. Some of them are people who finished whatever it is they’re doing in business or at leisure, and they really just need to get back home and get out of the lockdown conditions in Wuhan. And also just to sort of reiterate that we are bringing back citizens from Wuhan from that epicenter who are under lockdown. And we are bringing them back upon their request so that they can continue with their lives that they were living here in South Africa.”
Virus reaches Nigeria
Africa has been largely spared since the virus began to surface late last year. Most of the cases are in China. Nigeria this week reported its first confirmed case.
South Africa’s National Institute for Infectious Diseases applauded the move to repatriate South Africans and stressed that there have been no confirmed cases yet in South Africa. The institute's Dr Kerrigan McCarthy said authorities continue to monitor the situation.
"To date, there have been no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in South Africa and the NICD continues to test for possible cases,” she said, adding, “133 persons to date have been tested for SARS-COV, of whom 89 met the case definition for persons under investigation, as of the 28th of February. We continue to monitor trends of COVID-19 globally and in the African region to improve our knowledge of the disease and to continually enhance our surveillance and response.”
South Africa’s government has implemented temperature testing and health screening at Johannesburg's Oliver Reginald Tambo Airport, the continent’s busiest, and Health Minister Pakishe Aaron Motsoaledi has assured the population that the government has contingency plans in place, including designated treatment facilities and a 24-hour hotline.
Manzi added that two South African nationals are being treated in Japan after testing positive for the virus on the Princess Diamond Cruise Ship. However, she added, neither patient is showing symptoms and both will be kept under medical care until they are fully recovered