“A helluva journey”

Better days, Sandy Doyle at Christ the Redeemer, an Art Deco statue of Jesus Christ in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Sandy Doyle was one of thousands of South Africans who were stranded abroad as countries closed their borders in an effort to enforce strict lockdown regulations to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus.

On Monday April 13 she should have departed Rio de Janeiro to return to her Devil’s Peak home after a three-week holiday in South America. Instead she was stranded in “no man’s land” when Brazil and Argentina closed their borders and air space (Read more). 

She was subsequently repatriated and on Sunday April 12, during a mandatory 14-day quarantine period at Transnet Esselenpark training campus, she received the results from her swab test. Ms Doyle tested positive for Covid-19, along with eight others at the campus. 

When Ms Doyle spoke to Northern News last week, she said she felt fine and thought she may have contracted the virus while in Rio, where she had cold-like symptoms.

Recounting the ordeal of returning to South Africa, she said it had been a “helluva journey”. 

On Tuesday April 7 she left Rio for Sao Paulo airport. When they arrived they were told they had to pay US$500 (R9 000) or flight SA2225 would not take off. It was the middle of the night, says Ms Doyle, who wasn’t sure how she would be able to do an EFT and get proof of payment. 

While she was able to get her son to organise payment from South Africa, she felt sorry for others, the elderly, a man with a diabetic son and people who had no funds. Everyone had to sign an acknowledgement of debt and the flight eventually departed at 1am on Wednesday April 8.

Northern News sent questions to Dr Naledi Pandor, minister of International Relations and Cooperation,  asking who instituted these costs, where the money would go and under whose authority the funding was requested. Her department, however, did not respond. But when Northern News called the Department of International Relations and Co-operation (DIRCO) call centre, Amanda Mamadlodlo said when repatriated passengers arrived at the airport the Department of Health took over.

Darren Bergman, who runs the Home Away from Home social media campaign and who works closely with Dirco, said they only heard about this late into the repatriation process. “But we know that the UK have also asked for people to pay for their flights,” he said.

Ms Doyle arrived at OR Tambo airport where, she said, physical distancing was adhered to as passengers went through immigration. They then returned to the plane to collect their luggage, minimising handling before boarding vehicles without knowing where they were going.

At the first establishment they arrived at, they were clearly not being expected and they were turned away as the place had not been fumigated, said Ms Doyle.

Finally they arrived at Transnet School of Rail Esselenpark Campus at about 10pm and were confined to their rooms. There were no wi-fi, towels, food or water – and they had not eaten since 7am, said Ms Doyle. The smoke alarm kept going off in the passage – possibly someone smoking. A staff member told her they had only been appointed at 4pm that day.

Exhausted, Ms Doyle said she prayed for a good night’s sleep but more passengers arrived at 1am along with security with two-way radios and shouting. Finally everything settled at 3am. 

The following morning breakfast – cold baked beans and fish fingers – arrived in a Styrofoam box and people were not asked about dietary requirements – not even the Muslims among them, Ms Doyle claimed.

Later, medics arrived to ask about their movements before arrival at the campus and to conduct testing.

On day 6 she received her Covid-19 test results. Those who tested positive were bundled into an ambulance, which then sped away, sirens blazing, under heavy police escort.. They were then left in the car park outside Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital where they sat, with their cases, for many hours. Eventually their temperatures were taken, the sun set, it got cold, they went inside. 

According to Ms Doyle, the staff seemed puzzled as to why they were there, the hospital overflowing with sick people who needed the beds. 

They were later returned to Esselenpark and placed in solitary confinement far from the 60 passengers on the same flight from Brazil, and 50 others from Germany.

Thankfully, said Ms Doyle, conditions improved. “Everything changed significantly in 24 hours. I want to inspire hope in all those still stuck abroad. I felt very apprehensive when I read about the dreadful conditions in some of the quarantine facilities,” says Ms Doyle. “South Africa is hell bent on bending the curve and deploying whatever measures they can to achieve this. And I laud them for it,” says Ms Doyle.

Mr Bergman said the priority was to get passengers on planes, trains and buses and get them into South Africa. “And then we will worry about the terms and conditions when the nightmare has passed,” he said.

When South African expats arrive at OR Tambo, Dirco hands responsibility for them over to the Department of Health, to whom we have sent a list of questions. We’ve also followed up with phone calls to departmental spokesman Popo Maja and will publish the department’s response when we receive it.