A military operation is currently underway in South Africa’s northern Limpopo province, preparing to quarantine dozens of citizens being evacuated from China’s Wuhan province, the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak.
At least 120 South Africans working and studying in Wuhan have pleaded to be repatriated after spending nearly two months there in lockdown.
The government has given assurances that none of them is infected and the quarantine in a local resort hotel is a precaution. But already panic is emerging in the region that will host them.
Residents from the province have criticised the government for putting people’s lives in danger by hosting the quarantine site in Limpopo.
“I’m worried,” said 25-year-old labourer Mavunda Benedicto in Limpopo city, the province’s capital. “Out of all (the) provinces, our province is the one that is much poorer.”
“You can call an ambulance now and it will come maybe after five hours.”
He said he feared the lack of services would make it easier for the virus to spread.
On Twitter, hashtag #LimpopoIsNotADumpingSite trended before the arrival of the aircraft from Wuhan, expected at the weekend.
Two weeks ago, President Cyril Ramaphosa ordered the repatriation of South Africans who asked to be evacuated from Wuhan, which has been under lockdown for nearly two months.
The entire operation – from screening the passengers, airlifting, quarantining — will be led by the military. The aircraft, a South African Airways Airbus jet, will be flown by civilians.
The Wuhan group will be kept for 21 days at the heavily guarded Protea Hotel Ranch Resort, a vast 1,000 hectares conservation area 25 kilometres south of Polokwane city.
They will only be released after they get a clean bill of health at the end of the mandatory quarantine.
“There are no patients we are bringing here, there are no sick people,” Health Minister Zweli Mkhize told journalists before the repatriation adding that nervousness was “expected”.
But for some locals in Polokwane, repatriating the trapped citizens was non-negotiable.
“It’s good for our government to bring back our children home, we can’t allow our children to die outside of our country,” said Mokoena Vhutshilo, 34, who works at a car wash in Polokwane.
South Africa is the first sub-Saharan country to extricate its nationals from Wuhan, where the deadly virus first emerged in December.
Uganda and Senegal refused to repatriate their citizens because they could not afford to fund the operations.
South Africa has not said how much the operation will cost, but local media speculate it will run into millions of rands.
The country has recorded 24 positive cases of coronavirus infections so far, one of the highest numbers in sub-Saharan Africa.
Richard Friedland, CEO of Netcare, the country’s biggest private healthcare provider, has allayed the fears of those repatriated bringing the virus with them.
The Chinese government has done a superb job in isolating people and shutting down Wuhan, he said.
“We should not have any fear about them,” he told AFP.

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