Military health personnel, covered in protective medical gear, were ready and waiting when the SAA flight that went to China to rescue South Africans, trapped there as a result of the outbreak of the Covid-19 coronavirus, landed at Polokwane International Airport yesterday morning.
Unlike other flights that landed and came closer to the hangar, this flight was special. It was directed 400 metres away from the main airport building as authorities took no chances in avoiding contact.
After all, the flight was carrying South Africans who – while they had tested negative for the virus – would be quarantined for the next 21 days to ensure that any trace of Covid-19 was eliminated.
The crew who had manned the flight to China will also remain at The Ranch resort, situated about 20km from Polokwane, for three weeks.
It took almost an hour for the bus – which had its seats covered with plastic and taped around with silo tape – to emerge from where the plane was parked.
Using the private gates at the airport, the bus departed with a full escort by authorities to ensure that there was no contact with locals.
However, some members of the community living nearby waited along the R101, near the weighbridge, to see the returnees.
Police had to issue strict orders to those who had gathered there, as well as to members of the media waiting to get a glimpse of the returnees, to stay away from the road.
Hours prior to the plane’s arrival, the road had been closed.
This had forced some motorists to park their cars at a petrol station and wait for the military and other authorities to clear the road.
The Ranch resort has been declared a no-go area for citizens since the military was deployed to guard the venue where the returnees will be kept.
The choice of this venue has elicited an outcry from some members of the community in Polokwane, concerned about the potential for the virus to spread through the province.
“We are expecting them to be back before the weekend is over,” Health Minister Zweli Mkhize told the media during a briefing held at the resort on Thursday night.
He was flanked by a number of Cabinet colleagues, including Home Affairs Minister Aaron Motsoaledi, Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, Tourism Minister Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane and Limpopo premier Stan Mathabatha.
Already on Thursday, some of The Ranch’s staff members were allowed to leave the facility for the stipulated 21 days that it falls under the army’s control.
Until Thursday morning, workers were in charge of the daily affairs at The Ranch, but after 11am, the resort – sandwiched between the R101 road to the east and the N1 highway to the west – was turned into somewhat of a military zone.
Heavy-duty vehicles transporting members of the army and police officials entered the resort’s gate, via the R101, in convoy. A security guard, employed to stand guard at the gate, was relieved of his duties as soon as the army took control of the facility.
As the number of positive cases of Covid-19 increased, Mkhize said there were no plans to shut down the country and impose travel bans.
He said government’s focus was to make sure that South Africans longing to return home – amid global fear and panic sparked by the Covid-19 pandemic – returned safely and were quarantined.
However, Mkhize did not divulge other secret details about how the returnees would be handled once in the resort, saying the implementation and other processes involved were part of an SA National Defence Force mission and could not be made public, as per protocol.
The Ranch resort, Mkhize said, was identified after an intensive search was conducted across the country by senior army officials.
Among the things they looked for was a facility that would be located close to an airport, that would offer comfortable accommodation for the returnees and would be situated away from human habitation to avoid people wandering close to it.
The Ranch is located in a farming area, about 20km from Polokwane.
It has state-of-the-art rooms, boasts a stylish golf course and offers game drives, swimming and entertainment facilities. It is a popular venue for upmarket weddings and government functions.
Mkhize warned that anyone found on the facility without authorisation would be kept there and quarantined.
Asked what would happen if the worst-case scenario emerged from the returning South Africans during their stay at The Ranch, Mkhize assured citizens that those found to be infected would be taken directly to a medical facility.
Furthermore, he said, a team of military health professionals was also being deployed as part of the repatriation mission.
Dlamini-Zuma said she had met with resort staff, but it was unclear whether all of them had accepted government’s offer of an extra 30 days’ pay and insurance for working at the facility during the quarantine period.
It is claimed that some workers grumbled about the offer and registered their dissatisfaction over occupational health and safety conditions.
– Mukurukuru Media