South Africa repatriated dozens of its citizens from China on Saturday over the coronavirus, the health ministry said, the first such move by a sub-Saharan country as cases across the region continue to rise.
The 114 South Africans were working and studying in Wuhan city, which was placed under lockdown for around two months after the novel coronavirus was first detected in December.
They landed at Polokwane International Airport in South Africa’s northern Limpopo province, where they will be quarantined in a remote resort for a maximum of 21 days, authorities said.
“Flight LMG 755 from Wuhan city has landed with the South African citizens,” said health ministry spokesman Popo Maja.
The ministry later announced 14 new cases of coronavirus infections in South Africa — the highest increase to date — bringing the country’s tally up to 38.
President Cyril Ramaphosa ordered the repatriation late last month, after the anxious families of several South Africans in Wuhan asked the government to evacuate them.
The returnees were met by a team of health officials in white medical protective suits.
Wearing masks, they were swiftly loaded into coaches and driven 30 kilometres (18 miles) to the resort under police escort.
Government officials have assured that none of the group are infected by the virus and that the quarantine measures are only a precaution.
They will only be released after they get a clean bill of health.
The entire operation — from screening the passengers, airlifting, and quarantining — has been led by the military.
“These South Africans… have not tested positive,” health minister Zweli Mkhize told reporters earlier this week.
“They are not sick, they have got no symptoms. All we are doing is bringing them home.”
‘Don’t Feel Safe’
Limpopo residents have criticised the government for putting people’s lives in danger. Many are concerned about the impact of hosting a quarantine site in an impoverished province.
The hashtag #LimpopoIsNotADumpingSite trended on Twitter before the aircraft’s arrival.
“We are really stressed about the quarantine being here in Polokwane,” said resident James Whitehead, 42, who will be attending a wedding next to the resort.
“We don’t actually feel safe,” he complained.
Mmaphuthi Mphahlele, 39, said the community had not been adequately informed about the quarantine.
“There was no awareness drive,” he told AFP. “If they had I’m sure everybody would be… content and support this whole mission.”
To date, South Africa has the highest number of coronavirus infections in sub-Saharan Africa, followed by 21 in Senegal.
No deaths have been recorded so far, and there have not yet been any restrictions on travel or public gatherings.
An urgent Cabinet meeting is scheduled on Sunday to discuss new responses to the pandemic.
The coronavirus pandemic has infected over 150,000 people worldwide and killed more than 5,000, according to the World Health Organization.
Sub-Saharan Africa remains largely unscathed, with less than 70 detected cases in 18 countries and one death in Sudan.
The majority of people contracted the virus abroad, and there have been very few local transmissions in the region.
But the number of affected countries has multiplied over the past two days.
In Senegal, President Macky Sall on Saturday announced strict measures aimed at slowing the spread of coronavirus, including banning public gatherings, closing schools and cancelling the April 4 Independence Day festivities.
The government in neighbouring Mauritania announced Saturday it was closing schools, colleges and universities for at least a week, after it declared its first case of the virus.
The infected person was an Australian who had arrived in the country four days earlier.
Meanwhile, Kenya announced the first confirmed case in East Africa on Friday, and later that day eSwatini became the second country in southern Africa to announce a case.
Namibia on Saturday confirmed its first two cases and suspended all travel to and from Qatar, Ethiopia and Germany.
The first coronavirus case in Equatorial Guinea was also announced Saturday, after a woman who had been in Spain tested positive for the disease.
The Central African Republic also recorded its first coronavirus case, a 74-year-old Italian man.
So far there have been no cases of the virus reported on the island of Madagascar where President Andry Rajoelina on Saturday announced the suspension of all flights to and from Europe from March 20 and the immediate banning of all cruise ships.