Travellers stranded by Covid-19 returning home

Landing at OR Tambo airport, Amy George, Cohen Richards, and Lyle Hartzenberg of Crawford.

After weeks of being stranded in foreign lands by the global Covid-19 outbreak, several northern suburbs residents are back in the country and waiting to be reunited with loved ones after leaving quarantine.

Among them are Amy George, of Crawford, who was five months pregnant when she left on Wednesday March 18 for a week’s holiday in Bali. She arrived on Friday May 8 with her son, Cohen, and partner, Lyle Hartzenberg, after enduring what she described as a stressful repatriation process from Doha. They are being quarantined in a Sandton hotel room. Ms George said they were relieved to be in the country and were counting the days until they were reunited with loved ones.

Don and Anne Saunders, aged 62 and 60 respectively, also returned and are in quarantine at Emperors Palace Mondior Hotel after what they said was a great flight with SAA. They left their Edgemead home on Tuesday March 17 on what was supposed to have been a dream trip to Phuket, Thailand. They have now been separated and are not allowed out of their rooms. Even families have been separated. 

Mario Boffa, of West Beach, was stranded in Thailand but arrived home at the weekend. 

The repatriation flights have been fraught with complications. On Tuesday May 5, a Qatar Airways flight was on the runway preparing for take-off when it returned to Doha Hamad International Airport. Karen and Michael de Jongh, of Plattekloof, were on that flight. They had left the country in March for Obidos, Portugal and had caught the first of 10 planned repatriation flights. They said they had been told that their flight and others had been grounded because of insufficient quarantine accommodation for them in South Africa.

The previous day, Monday May 4, South Africans flown from Washington DC, arriving at OR Tambo, were left sitting on the tarmac for about five hours before they were taken to a quarantine site. 

Darren Bergman, of the Home Away From Home campaign, which has been working with the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) in Pretoria to help South Africans stranded overseas, said a miscommunication between the Department of Public Works and some hotels or quarantine facilities had caused the delay. Beverley Schäfer, a volunteer with Home Away From Home, said Pretoria had “pulled the plug” on the Qatar Airways flights and the airline and passengers had been told there was not enough quarantine accommodation for the returning citizens. 

Public Works Minister Patricia de Lille has called for an urgent investigation into the matter.

Nashat Al-Khalid, of Qatar Airlines, acknowledged receipt of our inquiry but did not respond to questions by the time we went online.

Dirco spokesman Clayson Monyela confirmed the Qatar Airlines delay had been due to problems on South Africa’s side in securing enough quarantine space for the passengers on their arrival back home.

“It appears that the sister departments that handle that leg of the process weren’t ready. We are doing everything possible to ensure that our nationals who are stranded abroad are brought back home… We are in contact with stakeholders to ensure that everything that needs to be done, is done.”

Airports Company South Africa (Acsa) spokesperson Betty Maloka said the Department of Health did health screening on arriving passengers, including checking their temperatures, and the Department of Public Works was responsible for arranging quarantine facilities. 

Caleb Poole, of Panorama, is in Doha but hopes to fly home on Tuesday May 12 from what he said had been an emotional roller coaster ride.