South Africans in Wuhan lockdown call for evacuation from coronavirus outbreak epicenter
Posted January 30, 2020 3:23 a.m. EST
CNN — South Africans in Wuhan, the epicenter of the novel coronavirus outbreak, have expressed frustration about their government's lack of evacuation plans from the city.
Nearly 60 million people are under partial or full lockdowns in cities in China as the Wuhan coronavirus continues to spread across Asia and the rest of the world. At least 170 people are dead, and more than 7,700 cases have been confirmed in mainland China since the outbreak began in December.
Several countries, including the US and Japan, have flown hundreds of their citizens out of the city.
South African Pieter Viljoen, who traveled with a colleague to Wuhan for a business conference before the city's transport lockdown began, said the authorities in South Africa and its embassy in Beijing have not provided support or information about plans to repatriate them.
South Africa's embassy in Beijing also declined to help when his company made private arrangements to secure a flight to get them out of the country and requested assistance and documentation to begin their evacuation process, he says.
Viljoen said dozens of South Africans caught in the city's lockdown have also complained about the South African government's lack of communication in a WeChat group created to share information about the situation.
"We are not getting any real assistance. The only information from the South African embassy is that we must comply with local authorities. In terms of leaving Wuhan, there has been no effort or communication about evacuation," Viljoen said.
Viljoen said he has remained in his hotel, which has shut down operations partially since the movement restriction put in place to help check the spread of the deadly virus.
Supermarkets and grocery stores around his hotel in Wuhan's Optics Valley area are running out of supplies, he said.
"You have only these small supermarkets where you can get food right now because of the complete lockdown. You can't move around from one district to another, so supplies are not readily available," Viljoen told CNN on telephone.
South Africa's embassy in Beijing declined to comment on Viljoen's allegations and directed CNN's request for comment to the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO).
The embassy had closed on January 26 for the Lunar New Year holiday and full operations only resumed Thursday, according to DIRCO. Emergency contact numbers manned by embassy staff were available for citizens in need of assistance to call during the holiday, the department added.
DIRCO spokesman Clayson Monyela told CNN on Thursday that the South African government and its health ministry was working on all requests. However, they must also consider travel and quarantine measures imposed by Chinese authorities to prevent the spread of the virus.
"We are not ignoring their plight, and we are quite aware of the need for speed to assist our citizens in Wuhan. We are liaising with the mission in Beijing to see how we can respond to the situation within the present context," Monyela said.
South Africa's opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), which said it was in touch with more than 100 South Africans in China, called on the foreign ministry to address the "dysfunction" at the county's embassy in China, which it said had affected efforts to help stranded citizens.
"The Department needs to ensure that its mission is able to communicate and allay fears by providing clear and helpful communication and assistance at the same standard of other countries that have heeded the call," it said in a statement Wednesday.
Despite growing calls for repatriation, South Africa's Health Minister Zweli Mkhize on Wednesday said there were no plans to fly its citizens out as Chinese authorities have the outbreak under control.
"The Chinese government has assured us that there is no evidence to necessitate the evacuation of foreign nationals living in Wuhan city, and they have called for calm in this respect," Mkhize said.
He added that they have been assured by the Chinese government that foreign nationals who fall sick will be treated in the same way as Chinese citizens.
South African Jessika Bailing says she feels neglected by her country's government.
The 23-year-old English teacher, who moved from South Africa to Wuhan last year, said while many countries are racing to get their citizens out of the city, authorities in South Africa were reluctant to make such arrangements.
"I've watched other countries' governments go above and beyond to evacuate their citizens and then we are faced with that kind of response from our government, how can one not feel abandoned?" Bailing said.
"The South African government may be putting things into place or trying to find some solutions to get the South Africans in Wuhan evacuated but neither me nor any other South African I have been in contact with feels that they are," she added.
Dustin Emslie says he's disappointed by the South African government's response to the situation.
"I didn't really expect the government to evacuate us, I just hoped there would be more concern for South African citizens abroad," he said.
Emslie, who has lived in Wuhan for six years, said he would leave with his Chinese wife and 3-year-old daughter, only if the whole family will go.
"If I had to leave, it would only be if they could come with me to South Africa. There is no way I'm just going to abandon them here," he said.
He says while locals and expatriates have been trying to cope with the restrictions. The uncertainty about when the lockdown will end has been the hardest to bear.
"We have no idea when this epidemic will end. It could be months that we are under lockdown here in Wuhan," he wrote in a text message.
Many Kenyans trapped in Wuhan have also taken to social media under the hashtag #KenyansinWuhan# asking their government to evacuate them from the city.
A Kenyan student at the Wuhan University of Technology, who wanted to stay anonymous due to his status as a foreign student, said he now fears for his safety as the coronavirus death toll continues to rise.
"Imagine not being able to open the door to a friend because you don't know if they are infected; it is freaking me out," he said.
He also said that buses, taxis, and ride-hailing apps were not working, and the only way to get around was on foot or by bicycle.
Antony Waigwa, a Kenyan student at the University of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Wuhan told CNN that Chinese authorities have been providing free food and electricity for many students at the institute since the lockdown.
State-owned telecoms company China Unicom has also given access to free internet services so that students can communicate and inform authorities about any development while the movement restriction lasts.
"Insurance companies have also removed limits to our cover so we can get treated till we fully recover if we contract the disease," Waigwa told CNN.
In a statement sent to its citizens living in China on Tuesday, the Kenyan embassy in Beijing said that the Chinese authorities had assured foreign governments not to panic and evacuation was not necessary at this stage.
The repatriation process could also take two weeks as Chinese authorities will only facilitate evacuation when foreign nationals have met all quarantine processes, including 14 days of no contact with the virus, the statement said.
It added that though the coronavirus outbreak is "severe", the embassy was confident in the Chinese government's efforts to contain it.
The spread of the virus has prompted some airlines to cancel flights to China, and several countries have placed people traveling from Wuhan under quarantine.
The Ivory Coast put a student who had returned from Beijing with coronavirus symptoms under observation on Saturday pending her test results.
The Nigerian government on Thursday said it will begin screening Chinese nationals traveling to the West African nation for the virus. Ethiopia and Kenya have placed passengers returning from areas hit by the virus under isolation. The World Health Organization on Tuesday said there had been no confirmed cases on the continent.