Covid19: SA citizens in Wuhan heading back home - how ready is SA?

Dr Zweli Mkhize.
Dr Zweli Mkhize.
Ihsaan Haffejee

With the immediate repatriation of 151 South Africans from Wuhan in China, the government says it has already started implementing plans to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in South Africa.

READ | Coronavirus repatriation: This is SA's plan to quarantine 151 citizens returning from Wuhan

At a media briefing in Johannesburg on Sunday, an Inter-Ministerial Committee assigned with the repatriation and quarantine of South Africans in Wuhan detailed how this process would work and what plans were in place to prevent the spread of the virus in South Africa.

"Following the president's directive for the repatriation of asymptomatic South African citizens in Wuhan City, where the epicentre of the outbreak is, such contingency plans are now being effected as a matter of extreme urgency," Health Minister Zweli Mkhize said.

Of the 201 South Africans in Wuhan, 16 have elected not to come back home while 151 indicated they wanted to return.

READ | Coronavirus: 121 in SA tested thus far and still no cases, assures Mkhize

Mkhize said the process will take between seven and 10 days to complete and will start "immediately".

The repatriation process will be based on the guidelines of the World Health Organisation (WHO) and will be implemented in three phases: evacuation, quarantine and reunification.

On the plane (evacuation)

According to Mkhize, the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (Dirco) and the South African military will work in collaboration with Chinese authorities to evacuate the citizens.

READ | South Africans who tested positive for coronavirus on Japan cruise ship will not return until given all clear

They will be brought home in an aircraft under strict quarantine protocols, with a medical team on board to assist with pre-flight screenings for the virus.

Those who do not meet the requirements of the medical screening will be referred back to the Chinese health system, Mkhize said.

On the plane, the medical team will conduct further tests and in-flight screenings and medical care will be provided if necessary.

Arrival in South Africa (quarantine)

Mkhize said a quarantine site has been identified that meets the necessary requirements but for security reasons he did not divulge the location.

The site will be guarded by the South African military and will be a no-entry zone. Even family members will not be able to visit their loved ones until given permission.

On arrival, another screening process will be conducted, and should someone test positive for the virus, they will be transferred to another facility, which Mkhize did not name.

Quarantine will last 21 days and staff at the site will also be quarantined.

For every confirmed case of the virus, the quarantine period will start again from day one.

"Should someone develop symptoms, they would be immediately isolated for further testing. Should the patient test positive for the coronavirus, they would immediately be transferred to a designated referral facility," Mkhize said.

Release of citizens (reunification)

The exiting process will also be done in phases, which will include a final counselling session and then permission will be granted to leave.

However, government will stay in contact with them even after this.

Are we ready? Hotline number

Mkhize said no cases of the coronavirus have been reported in South Africa and reiterated that the country is ready to tackle the treatment of the coronavirus.

He said South Africans are being kept in the loop with daily updates on the coronavirus and a hotline has been set up for people who think they might be showing symptoms.

The hotline number is 0800 029 999 and operates from 08:00 to 16:00 but should a case of the virus be confirmed in the country, the hotline will run 24 hours a day.

According to Home Affairs Minister Aaron Motsoaledi, who was also at the briefing, South Africa boasts state-of-the-art laboratory facilities and respected medical professionals and scientists who are monitoring the situation.

South Africa is home to one of two BSL4 (biosafety level four) laboratories on the continent. It is recognised by the WHO and can deal with serious pathogens and viruses. It also tests for the virus on behalf of many African countries, Motsoaledi said.

What has SA been doing?

So far, South Africa has created a Multisector National Outbreak Response team responsible for tracking and tracing outbreaks worldwide, as well as analysing developments and advising authorities.

"This included up-capacitation of our ports of entry to be able to screen incoming passengers, especially those from China and other affected countries and preparing tertiary institutions to be referral centres for the isolation and management of Covid-19 patients as well as to take advantage of their research capabilities," Mkhize said.

He added that the South African government was in communication with embassies and authorities in several countries where infections were increasing.

"There is no start or end to the work that must be done. There are more robust studies needed and medical precision needs to be sharpened.

"Our level of vigilance continues to be at the highest level in the wake of the WHO announcement of a public health emergency of international concern," Mkhize said.

He appealed to South Africans who have family in Wuhan to contact Dirco on 012 351 1754 and 012 351 1756, or via email on and

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