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‘Truly amazing’: the journey from Wuhan to SA

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‘Truly amazing’: the journey from Wuhan to SA

We talk to the men who led the mission to repatriate the SA citizens, who describe the emotional moment the plane doors opened in China

Night news editor
Ahmed Bham, head of the health department's disaster medicine department, with SAA chief pilot Capt Vusi Khumalo, left, and senior first officer Jacob Setlhake on board the Airbus flight to Wuhan.
Man with a plane Ahmed Bham, head of the health department's disaster medicine department, with SAA chief pilot Capt Vusi Khumalo, left, and senior first officer Jacob Setlhake on board the Airbus flight to Wuhan.
Image: Ahmed Bham/Facebook

The moment a little girl ran through the doors of the SAA Airbus A340-600 on the runway in Wuhan, China, was something Ahmed Bham will never forget.

She was the first South African to enter the plane and begin the process of being repatriated from the coronavirus epicentre. She, her family, and about 140 others were finally heading home.

“It was the most amazing feeling when the plane doors opened, and after we had done the administration with the Chinese authorities, then the first passenger was a little girl. You know, she ran into the plane. And that really touched everyone,” said Bham, the head of disaster medicine at the national health department.

“You just see this as your first citizen coming into the plane. I think that boosted the team morale. I mean, anyone, but if you see a kid … it’s something else.” 

He was speaking to Times Select on Friday morning from The Ranch quarantine zone, exactly two weeks from the day since they left China to come back home.

You just see this as your first citizen coming into the plane. I think that boosted the team morale. I mean, anyone, but if you see a kid … it’s something else.

Moments before the interview, he was involved in the final swab tests for those repatriated, and for the crews that brought them home.

Those tests came back negative at the weekend, and President Cyril Ramaphosa visited The Ranch on Sunday to meet the team and speak to them before the process of getting them back home started on Monday.

The 14-day quarantine was officially over.

Bham was there at the end, having seen the whole process through from even before the flight to Wuhan.

He was one of those who led the mission to China. He was involved in the meticulous planning and preparation before, during and after the trip, right down to criss-crossing SA to find the perfect place for the lockdown location.

Bham said the feeling of delight at leaving China for home was exceeded as they got closer to Polokwane.

“It was amazing, the moment Captain Vusi said we were flying over Kruger National Park. Just that sense that you’re in South African airspace was truly amazing, man, you know. You were home, you know,” he said.

SAA chief pilot, Capt Vusi Khumalo, was the man at the helm on the flight deck.

“Landing in Polokwane was good. I wouldn’t say it was a feeling of a job well done, but there was this inner good feeling that you managed to do this. But then, forward planning kicks in. You’re already thinking about the next steps, the quarantine and things,” he said.

One of those steps was “exit medical screenings” before they could leave the plane. This was the third such screening in less than a day, with Chinese officials doing screenings before the South Africans could leave Wuhan, and the SA officials doing their own screenings before the plane accepted any passengers.

President Cyril Ramaphosa arrives at The Range in Polokwane to visit the South Africans who were repatriated from Wuhan, as well as those who have been treating and looking after them.
At The Ranch President Cyril Ramaphosa arrives at The Range in Polokwane to visit the South Africans who were repatriated from Wuhan, as well as those who have been treating and looking after them.
Image: Elmond Jiyane/GCIS

Then it was a bus drive to The Ranch, a plush resort outside the Limpopo town, where the lockdown would begin.

At this point, the country was still a few days away from Ramaphosa announcing a state of disaster over the spread of the coronavirus, let alone from the lockdown.

Bham gave unique insight into life at The Ranch.

Before the 146 South Africans were checked in, they had a full medical screening, which included a swab to be tested for Covid-19, the respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus.

Then, every day, they have to go for a basic medical check at the “level 1 hospital” which had been established – a process every member of the SAA crew, the health department team and the hotel staff had to go through.

Not even at mealtime was it a free-for-all. This was, after all, a full medical quarantine zone.

“I won’t say communal eating. We’ve created six different areas in the ‘red zone’. Each area has a place where they go and eat because this place [The Ranch] has quite a lot of restaurant facilities where you can send different groups.

If I put it this way: someone will be sitting at the extreme right, someone at the extreme left. It was spaced very nicely.

“If I put it this way: someone will be sitting at the extreme right, someone at the extreme left. It was spaced very nicely,” said Bham.

The repatriated were also allowed to gather in small groups of no more than five or 10, and had to keep a safe distance.

Every person had an individual room, apart from families who were put together in bigger units. They had access to wifi, and many of the students were online to work and communicate with their universities in China.

On one day, one of the children had a birthday, so a party was thrown for her.

But, now, as the quarantine draws to an end, Bham admitted there was anxiety. These South Africans had just left Wuhan and would soon go out into their home country where there was a growing Covid-19 case count.

“We’re at the end of the quarantine. We’ve done the last swabbing, which we did this morning [Friday], and we’re waiting for results. Once the results come, if all negative, we’ll go into the reunification phase. That will be kicked off in terms of transport arrangements to different provinces and facilities for everyone.

“Depending on when we get the results, we’ll know over the next two or three days when we can start doing it.

Can you imagine going for this whole trip and now in quarantine and you’re under lockdown and seeing the numbers rise in South Africa.

“I mean, I’d like if I say you’re not worried about what’s out there, you know. Myself as well. Can you imagine going for this whole trip and now in quarantine and you’re under lockdown and seeing the numbers rise [in SA]. You think, ja, definitely, there’s a lot of steps you need to take and a lot of concerns and worries,” said Bham.

However, he said that if anyone was prepared for a lockdown and to take the necessary precautions to not be contaminated, it was these South Africans.

“But you must know they’ve come from a lockdown. So I wouldn’t say it’s fine, we’re all prepared, but I mean they kind of are a bit more geared up. They understand what a lockdown is,” he said.

For Bham, when he is allowed to leave The Ranch, he won’t be going home.

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