South Africans being repatriated from Wuhan, China, will be kept in isolation for between 14 and 21 days, with soldiers and the army patrolling the perimeter of a special quarantine facility in Limpopo, Health Minister Zweli Mkhize said on Thursday.
He described Wuhan as being “awash” with the Coronavirus during the late night media briefing.
The returnees would not be allowed to have contact with their families until a fortnight had passed, he said.
The briefing was held at The Ranch Resort in Polokwane, which was placed at government’s disposal as a haven for the returnees.
More than 80 facilities were considered but rejected on various grounds, including the lack of a landing facility for the aircraft repatriating the citizens.
Mkhize said the venue would be under lockdown by the police and military from the moment the group landed, which is expected to happen before the weekend.
He said it had also been declared a no-fly zone, and therefore no drone footage was allowed to be taken of the venue or the returnees.
The minister said he realised that the confinement would not be easy and that care had been taken to ensure the citizens were comfortable.
“Apart from the fact that they cannot meet their families there is no other restriction,” he said.
He also stressed again that none of the 122 concerned had experienced Coronavirus symptoms or tested positive for Covid-19.
The virus was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organisation on Wednesday.
“They are not criminals, they are not sick, they are not patients, they are just South Africans [biding] their time,” Mkhize said.
He said if any of the repatriated should fall ill with Covid-19, they would be taken to hospital for treatment.
Police officers and soldiers manning a double security perimeter around the venue would also remain in isolation there for the prescribed period.
“All in all, we are going to be having quite a number of people here.”
Mkhize paid tribute to all volunteers involved in the repatriation effort, including the flight staff.
“We are thanking all South Africans who put their hands up to say they will be helping,” he said.
He said at this point the state did not know the cost of repatriating the South Africans and responded to criticism from some quarters about spending money on bringing them home, by asking for human understanding.
Mkhize said there have been times in the past when the government has spent a considerable amount of money to save a single citizen.
“At the end of the day we go home and say whatever the cost, we saved one South African.”
The government on Thursday gave the number of infections nationally as 17, but Mkhize later corrected this to 16 after a 32-year-old man in the Free State
“We have subsequently found that the Free State case which initially tested positive earlier … is negative,” the minister said.
He said results were cross-checked by a government laboratory, revealing the final negative result. Mkhize added that it was understandable that the initial laboratory had not waited for confirmation and withheld its finding from the patient.
“It is not serious. We just have to correct it and move on.”
Mkhize cautioned against spreading fake news and stigmatising victims, saying such conduct was “more dangerous than the virus” itself.
He stressed that the returnees had simply asked to come home because they wished to, not because they were badly treated or the government did not trust the level of health care in China.
That country now had a record of successfully treating tens of thousands of people infected with the virus, he said, “and nobody else can say that”.