UPDATE | Government denies that defence force staff are 'unwilling' to man plane to fetch South Africans from China

2020-03-06 08:06

Government has denied a media report that claims South African National Defence Force (SANDF) crew members are refusing to make the potentially dangerous journey to China to help in the repatriation of 184 South African citizens.

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 - which include teachers and other professionals currently working in Wuhan - the city from which the deadly virus originates, News24 reported.

An aircraft has been secured for the repatriation of South African citizens from Wuhan amid the global outbreak of the Covid-19 virus.

But SANDF crew members were refusing to make the potentially dangerous journey, according to M&G's report.

"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 M&G's 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.

Report is 'misleading'

Following the publication of the article, the Government Communication and Information System (GCIS) issued a statement calling the report misleading. 

It said the article "misinforms readers and the general public about government's handling of the repatriation of South Africans and goes against the paradigm of responsible journalism. The article casts aspersions on the work of government on the repatriation process of South African nationals from Wuhan, China, by an unnamed source."

GCIS said government maintained that the Terms of Reference for the provision of an aircraft for the repatriation includes trained crew members to assist the passengers. "This is in line with civil aviation regulations which require trained and registered crew members to assist the passengers on the plane.

"The discourse in the article about SANDF officials is also deceptive, as all hands are on deck to ensure a smooth repatriation process of our people. Government reassures all South Africans that government is on track with the repatriation process. All services that are required for the repatriation are being finalised and the public will be informed accordingly."

GCIS reiterated that all South Africans that will be repatriated were not sick and that the World Health Organisation's (WHO) protocols for the repatriation will be adhered to.

Remain calm

"Government calls upon citizens to remain calm and spread truths about the virus to overcome the global challenge of misinformation in the public domain."

SANDF spokesperson Siphiwe Dlamini also told M&G that he was not aware of the situation and that everything was in place as had been planned.

Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize said at a briefing on Sunday the operation would be conducted over a period of seven to 10 days.

In a statement issued on Thursday, 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. News24 understands 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. 

This article has been edited since publication to include comment from GCIS. 

- Compiled by Riaan Grobler

Read more on:    sandf  |  china  |  covid-19  |  coronavirus
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