As we begin the first full week of the nation-wide lockdown to combat the coronavirus pandemic that is devastating the world, we are grateful for good news that brings us joy and hope at this difficult and uncertain time.
On Sunday, I was in Polokwane to meet the 114 South Africans who were evacuated from Wuhan in China two weeks ago. They have ended their quarantine and are finally going home to be with their families. They have all tested negative for the virus and are in good health and good spirits.
For months, they have been in lockdown, first in Wuhan for some 51 days and then in Polokwane for 14 days. They have been unable to be with their loved ones, unable to leave their living quarters and uncertain about when their ordeal would end. When we add the remaining 17 days that South Africa will be under lockdown they will have been under lockdown for 82 days.
It was wonderful to spend time with this diverse group of South Africans made up of all ages, languages and backgrounds. I was impressed by their resilience and courage and by their determination to remain healthy. They have come from the epicentre of the coronavirus in Wuhan in China and have seen the devastating impact this virus is wreaking on human life. It is not surprising to hear them say that they are on a mission to safe-guard the health of those around them. Now their patience and fortitude has been rewarded, because they are returning to their families.
Their return home was made possible by a great many people who went to great lengths to make this repatriation operation a success.
As a nation, we are extremely grateful to the Government and the people of China for taking such good care of our citizens, and for their assistance in organising their repatriation. It is significant that several of the South Africans in Wuhan were on study scholarships from the Chinese government; an act of generosity that is deeply appreciated.
We are grateful too to all the people who were involved in the operation, from the SAA flight crew to the medical team to the police and soldiers who brought them home. Each and every one of them stepped forward to take responsibility for the safety and well-being of others. They were prepared to undertake a difficult and dangerous mission and to subject themselves to quarantine. And now, they all tell me, they are ready for their next mission.
I wish to thank the staff and management of the Ranch Hotel in Polokwane, who took great care of the returnees. They were prepared to play their part in our national effort to overcome this disease. Everyone involved in this operation has done South Africa proud.
The experience of the South Africans in Wuhan demonstrates the effectiveness – and the necessity – of a state of lockdown. It was due to the drastic actions that the Chinese government took to contain the disease in the city of Wuhan, that all of our people were able to return uninfected and healthy.
Wuhan, a city of 11 million people in the province of Hubei, had more than 50,000 infections. Now, after more than two months after stringent lockdown measures were put in place, the province has had fewer than 20 new cases in the past two weeks.
The containment of the disease in Wuhan City, in Hubei Province and in other places across China required a massive and extraordinary effort. It involved drastic restrictions on daily life and is having a severe impact on the Chinese economy. Other countries that have taken similar measures are having greater success in managing the spread of the disease than countries that have been slower to respond.
As the total number of confirmed COVID-19 cases worldwide grows to over 700,000 and the number of deaths exceeds 33,000, we can draw lessons from these countries.
It is now abundantly clear that the most effective way for a society to contain the spread of the disease is for the population to remain at home and physically isolated from each other for at least several weeks. And it is important that this lockdown and all other emergency measures are both strictly adhered to and consistently enforced.
As the South Africans from Wuhan can testify, such restrictions on daily life, on movement and on ordinary human contact are extremely difficult to endure. In the South African context, a lockdown brings additional hardship and strain, and we are doing everything within our means to lessen the impact on our people.
But the lesson from the South Africans in Wuhan is that a lockdown works. It shows that if we strictly observe the rules in place to stop the virus spreading, we will be able to bring infection rates down. It shows that if we cooperate with health authorities in doing what we have to do, we won’t be just saving our own lives but those around us too.
The story of our South African returnees from Wuhan should give us encouragement and hope in the difficult weeks that lie ahead.
Their story tells us that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, that if we stay the course, that if we remain disciplined and respect the lockdown, that if we work together, we will overcome.