Coronavirus: Chaos at South African Embassy in China, SA Minister Needs to Intervene

Many South African citizens in China are apparently trapped in Wuhan, the centre of the Coronavirus outbreak, because of a “state of dysfunction” at the South African Embassy, according to the DA’s international body, DA Abroad. Phones are going unanswered. Unclear directions are being given. And there’s no Ambassador at the helm.

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Passengers arriving from China at Cape Town International airport. Photo: Stan Sanetra

Wuhan City – at the centre of the Coronavirus outbreak – is currently under quarantine with five million citizens evacuated from the city. Chinese authorities have closed all public transport entering and leaving Wuhan and other areas in Hubei Province, South Africa’s Health Minister said at a press briefing today.

However, while some other countries are evacuating their citizens, South Africa has chosen not to (yet), and – according to the DA – is not providing clear guidelines to South Africans living in the region.

The SA Embassy in China has been closed due to the lunar New Year period, and there is currently no Ambassador at the SA Embassy to lead the way, says the DA.


The DA Abroad has been in touch with over 100 SA citizens in Wuhan and other parts of China, and says “it has come to our attention that whilst officials at the Embassy are trying to hold the fort, the lack of an Ambassador’s presence or leadership from South Africa is hampering any hope of rescue or evacuation assistance in light of the outbreak of the Coronavirus.”

South African expats who have been ringing the 24-hour emergency DIRCO number have found it unresponsive at times.. and when officials have responded, they have provided inadequate information.

Darren Bergman, DA Shadow Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, says: “The latest communication is that DIRCO will not evacuate South African citizens and that if citizens wish to leave they need to undergo a 14 day quarantine and then make their own way home.

“The DA is concerned that citizens are not pointed to the exact quarantine location and that no information is being offered in terms of available transport,” says Bergman.

He says he is writing to Minister Naledi Pandor, requesting she urgently intervene and that she or one of her two deputy minister “show leadership and handle this crisis, especially in light of China being without an Ambassador”.

The DA has therefore also requested Minister Pandor to:

  • Ensure a manned telephone number at DIRCO that will serve as an advice centre for South African citizens in China;
  • Form a dedicated team to communicate and advise South Africans in the affected region;
  • Ensure that staff at the Embassy endeavour to find ways and means to direct citizens to quarantine and to inform them of transportation choices to evacuate; and
  • Keep citizens informed on how to minimise the risk of disease

The DA Abroad says it is willing to assist and work together with the Department to minimise the risk of disease and to enable the safe evacuation of any South African citizens seeking such assistance.

“We understand that there are budget restraints and that this period has been chaotic. We are also sympathetic to the safety of our officials abroad and ask that they ensure that they take the necessary precautions to minimise the risk to themselves,” said the DA.

South Africa remains on high alert for Coronavirus

Today the SA government said it remains on high alert for Coronavirus.

Health Minister Zweli Mkhize said at a media briefing:  “As the Department of Health, we wish to assure the public that South Africa is adequately prepared for active surveillance, early detection, isolation, case management, contact tracing and prevention of the onward spread of coronavirus.”

The Charlotte Maxeke, Steve Biko, and Tembisa hospitals are the three facilities that have been prepared to receive potential Coronavirus cases.

To date, South Africa has no reported or suspected cases of Coronavirus.

While research into the virus is ongoing, the disease is suspected to originate from animals but evidence suggests that it is spread by human to human contact.

On 31 December 2019, the China World Health Organization (WHO) office reported a cluster of pneumonia cases in Wuhan City, Hubei Province of China.

The cause was confirmed as a novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV).

Symptoms

According to the WHO, the incubation period is about two to 10 days, although some literature suggests 14 days.

“More evidence is needed to determine if asymptomatic patients are contagious, although preliminary evidence suggests that like Ebola, all the contacts reported were patients who had symptoms,” said the Minister.

Symptoms of novel coronavirus are fever and cough with a few patients presenting with difficulty in breathing and bilateral infiltrates on chest X-rays.

With a suspected case closer to South African shores in Zambia, the National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD) is closely monitoring the situation.

Travel advice

On Monday, South Africa published travel advice based on WHO recommendations that take into consideration all factors that determine the level of threat on a particular territory.

“The guidelines have not recommended any restrictions on travel or trade but it has recommended that non-essential travel to Wuhan city or Hubei Province, should be avoided or postponed. Prospective travellers can monitor the situation and plan their travel accordingly,” the Minister said.

Response teams

In response to the outbreak, South Africa has put measures in place to respond to potential cases.

A hotline has been set up at NICD to field questions from clinicians. South Africa has also developed and distributed clinical guidelines and case definitions to nurses and doctors, which include information on how to diagnose and respond to a possible 2019-nCoV case.

Provinces have activated outbreak response teams while the screening of returning travellers from China have been intensified.

Port health officials routinely conducted thermal screening.

“As a department, it is standard procedure to monitor emergent outbreaks and we are currently tracking a plethora of pathogens that include those viruses of pandemic potential like H5-N1 and we therefore wish to reassure that Coronavirus is no exception,” said Mkhize.

An emergency committee meeting convened on Wednesday, 22 January, by the WHO concluded that although developments in China were concerning, it is still too early to declare a public health emergency of international concern.

Sources: DA press release and SAnews.gov.za