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South Africans are divided over the return of 114 students from China’s coronavirus epicenter

AP Photo/Denis Farrell
Sanitizing in Johannesburg
Johannesburg

In early March, when South Africa’s health minister announced the first confirmed case of Covid-19 virus, it was met with typical South African humor. Jokes ranged from novel construction of masks using household items like empty plastic bags to hopes that someone would start a Coronavirus challenge.

But when the government announced it would be expatriating desperate South African students from Wuhan, China—the ground zero of the global coronavirus pandemic—the jokes were quickly replaced with concern and anger. The outbreak is believed to have started in Wuhan’s markets, where various exotic animals are butchered, so much so the virus was initially termed “Wuhan virus.”

The students returned to South Africa on March 14, just as the government confirmed the country now has 38 coronavirus cases, by far the highest in sub-Saharan Africa.

The 114 South African students are currently under lockdown in Limpopo, about a four-and-a-half-hour drive from Johannesburg.

Both the decision to bring them home and then to quarantine them in Limpopo has sparked outcry from locals and politicians. Their concerns have been about the cost of expatriation and the potential health risk of bringing citizens from highly infected region into the country.

President Cyril Ramaphosa responded to fears of infection ahead of the Wuhan evacuation by stressing that anyone with troubling symptoms would not be allowed to board the plane. “This team is going to fetch people who are well. We will keep screening them to check if we cannot find someone who got an infection—if there are, we will take them out for treatment.”

These words, however, seem to not have been enough to allay fears. Following the announcement that the quarantine site would be in Limpopo, the hashtag #LimpopoIsNotADumpingSite began trending on Twitter.

Criticism of the decision even came from within the ruling ANC party. The ANC Youth League from a region in Limpopo threatened to “disturb this arrangement and organize the mother of all marches” in protest.

The youth league says choosing Limpopo as a quarantine site may give bad publicity to the vulnerable tourism economy of the province. Instead of choosing one site, every province in South Africa should have its own quarantine facility, the group suggested.

The identities of the 114 South Africans have been protected while the students are in quarantine. For the next 21 days they will be tested daily, with movement restricted to within the venue. Shortly after their arrival on home soil, one of the group wrote a note which South Africa’s health minister, Dr. Zweli Mkhize, posted on Twitter. It expressed gratitude for the expatriation and acknowledgement that it’d been a controversial choice.

“On behalf of evacuees, can’t thank you enough for taking this beautiful huge risk. I’m sure some of your families disagreed with your decision but regardless of that you came to fetch us.”

With the expatriation process now concluded, Ramaphosa is set to chair an urgent meeting of cabinet on March 15 to discuss ways to limit the spread of the coronavirus from travelers coming into the country.

All new coronavirus patients had traveled overseas to European countries including Switzerland, Austria, Greece, and Italy.

The Democratic Alliance opposition party is suggesting a mandatory 14-day quarantine on all travelers coming into South Africa from the worst-affected countries.

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