"There were no precautionary measures at the airport".
This is how one passenger summed up her experience when she and dozens of other people arrived at the baggage-claim area after landing at the Hosea Kutako International Airport (HKIA) on an Air Namibia flight on Wednesday.
Esmé Pule (38), who had just arrived home from Johannesburg on Wednesday afternoon, was cramped inside the terminal with more than 100 other passengers, while the Namibian authorities decided what to do with them.
Among the group were students and anxious children and pensioners. Some had arrived on a British Airways flight. The group arrived just a day after the government announced the closure of all borders and a 21-day lockdown after the seventh case of coronavirus was confirmed in the country.
TO QUARANTINE OR NOT
Facing uncertainty, the passengers waited inside the confined space for close to three hours at the airport without food and water, some of them threatening to break down the doors as anxiety grew.
Eyewitnesses who watched from behind immigration doors said people had to share food and hand sanitisers among themselves as a safety precaution.
Others wore masks as they waited for the government's newly appointed coordinator on the national task team on the coronavirus, Bernard Haufiku, to arrive from Windhoek, about 45 kilometres away to address them. Haufiku would decide whether to send them to a quarantine facility or not.
"We landed and collected our luggage, but there were other passengers before us who managed to go out [cleared] and private people that went through, but they blocked all Air Namibia passengers," Pule said.
Pule, who is a Namibian student in South Africa, said airport staff might have confused them with passengers coming in from another overseas aircraft, where a number of countries are considered to be high-risk Covid-19 areas.
After more than an hour of waiting, some impatient passengers and immigration officials got into heated arguments and the police had to be called in to control the anxious crowd from breaking down doors.
Pule explained that the police were told by immigration officials to block arrivals from flights who were coming through immigration as they waited for further instructions from the Ministry of Health and Social Services.
"While he [Haufiku] was in a meeting for so many hours, we were kicking doors there and screaming, why did they keep us there in the first place," the disgruntled traveller said. "You don't make people suffer like that," she added.
SCREENING FOR THE VIRUS
Apart from checking their temperatures, none of the people were tested, Pule claims. She said the airport staff "didn't know the danger of the coronavirus" as there were no precautionary measures at the airport.
She added that the travellers were not given masks, sanitisers or gloves, neither were staff wearing any medical safety gear.
Pule said they were not taking responsibility to keep the space between passengers as they arrived, and space was limited.
"We were treated badly compared to how South Africans treated us. You come here and the customer service is horrible, like you are talking to someone at shebeens," she said. Pule said she was further infuriated when Haufiku did not apologise for making passengers wait for hours.
"He [Haufiku] knows there were many people in there, he came and made people wait, but if he was so concerned, he would have spoken differently, the first thing you should say is sorry," she continued.
Another student who spoke to The Namibian on condition of anonymity, said he landed at the HKIA at 14h30 on a British Airways flight before the Air Namibia passengers did.
He, however, said his flight was relatively empty coming from Johannesburg.
"In Johannesburg, the airport was very empty, most shops and restaurants were closed. They had enough security on the ground to keep people apart form each other," he said.
He added that there was rigorous checking at the airport, and at the South African immigration as that country was on high alert for any suspicious passengers.
The student added that people's temperatures were also thoroughly checked at the airport in Johannesburg.
"British Airways announced that they were not serving any food on the flight and told people to find an empty seat and keep a distance from each other. They also checked people's temperatures," he said.
SCRAMBLING FOR BREATHING SPACE
Right before people arrived at HKIA's baggage carousel, officials said that they were waiting for the ministry of health to give a directive whether they would be quarantined.
"Namibian immigration officials spent time checking passports and stamps, once they got to the baggage carousel, they blocked us for hours, until the Air Namibia flight arrived 45 minutes later.
"People were still relatively calm [then], but people started getting nervous," the student said, adding that the Cape Town flight landed thereafter and space became further limited and passengers became agitated.
They advised each other to keep a fair distance apart bearing in mind that they were in a small space.
Finally when Haufiku arrived, it was decided that passengers from Europe would be quarantined at a facility in Hardap region for the next 14 days, while those arriving from South Africa were advised to self-quarantine. The Namibian arrived on the scene an hour before some tearful passengers were reunited with their loved ones after their ordeal.
Haufiku at a media briefing yesterday said people are not against the quarantine itself but rather want proper services while in quarantine in Namibia.
He told The Namibian at the airport on Wednesday that there was a misinterpretation of the health ministry's new directive on blocking passengers from all countries, including travellers from South Africa.
That directive only comes into effect from midnight today (Friday, 27 March).
He clarified that the only passengers who will be quarantined are those coming from Europe, however, those arriving from South Africa before lockdown will be asked to self-quarantine.
- Additional reporting by Charmaine Ngatjiheue