Coronavirus: Can those stranded from Cairo to Cape Town come home?

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Corona Chronicles: 27 April – 30 April

By 'Tofe Ayeni, Anne-Marie Bissada, Fahd Iraqi, Morris Kiruga, Xolisa Phillip

Posted on Tuesday, 28 April 2020 19:01, updated on Wednesday, 29 April 2020 00:54
Virus Outbreak Florida
A South African and American flag are draped over the counter as David Reed checks in for a South African Airways (SAA) charter flight from Miami International Airport to Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban, during the new coronavirus pandemic, Tuesday, April 14, 2020, in Miami. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

As the coronavirus pandemic keeps most countries on lockdown mode, many nationals stranded abroad are trying to make their way home through the help of their respective governments; but for many, there is no option.


Airports shut

On 21 March, the Nigerian government announced that airports would be closed to all commercial flights for a month. That meant any nationals trying to get home would be stranded for a month.

But by 20 April, that closure was extended by two weeks, with the Minister of Aviation, Hadi Sirika stating in a tweet: “As a result of lockdown by Mr President it is no longer possible for us to open our airspace and airports for normal operations by the 23rd April, 2020. They will remain closed for a further 2 weeks.”

READ MORE: How Nigeria is faring nearly two weeks into COVID-19 lockdown

Meanwhile, on 3 April, Geoffrey Onyeama, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, directed all its missions abroad to compile lists of nationals who requested to return home to Nigeria, in response to a request by Mrs Abike Dabiri-Erewa, the CEO of the Nigeria in the Diaspora Commission (NIDCOM).

Financial constraints

Onyeama had originally said that the government would pay for return flights, the two-week stays in quarantine centres, and the coronavirus tests for all Nigerians who wanted to return home to their families during this pandemic.

However, on 22 April the Minister of Foreign Affairs said during a briefing by the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 in Abuja, that the government would not be able to foot the bill for the evacuations due to financial constraints.

READ MORE: Coronavirus: recession in Nigeria likely, despite measures in place

Some exceptions, however, were made.

“We have some students who are stuck in Khartoum Sudan. Of course, we have to bend backward to find the resources to pay for their return and also for their two-week isolation,” said Onyeama.

Those students stuck in Khartoum, Sudan, were flown back to Nigeria free of charge, but that has been the extent of the government’s financial capabilities to date.

As for others stranded abroad, the Minister said: “It is a source of great regret for the government that we are not in a position to pay. If we had the resources, we would be more than happy to pay for their return tickets and their stay at isolation centres for two weeks.”

Stranded in China

Video footage emerged at the beginning of April showing Nigerian citizens being mistreated in China. They were kicked out of hotels and restaurants, being stigmatised as supposed carriers of the virus.

In a meeting with Chinese Ambassador Zhou Pingjian in Abuja on 14 April, Onyeama said: “We saw images of Nigerians in the streets with their possessions and this was, of course, extremely distressing for us at home.”

He called for immediate action to be taken by the Chinese government, and the ambassador assured him that Beijing was taking the issue seriously.

While the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has since announced plans to evacuate Nigerians from China due to this discrimination, it still remains unclear if Nigeria will foot the bill for their travel.

South Africa

Nationals return home

The South African government has helped repatriate 600 of its nationals from around the globe, while more than 3,000 others await similar good fortune.

The department of international relations and co-operation has moved to reassure those South Africans who remain stranded abroad that it is working with foreign governments to ensure the citizens’ safe return home.

So far, South Africans have returned home from 17 countries including Afghanistan, Angola, Brazil, Belgium, Ethiopia, Germany, Ghana, Italy, the UK and the US.

Furthermore, South Africans are permitted to return home from neighbouring countries using land borders under strict controls.

International relations minister Naledi Pandor said: “We are dealing with a situation that none of us ever expected. We are doing all we can to repatriate citizens stranded abroad.”

Difficult cases

However, the department of international relations and co-operation has experienced difficulties repatriating South Africans from Peru, Indonesia, Thailand and Pakistan.

“We are aware of the 34 South Africans stranded in Lima, Peru. A further 307 citizens are stranded in Thailand … and about 140 in Bali, Indonesia. We are trying to find solutions to bring them home,” said Pandor.

Since the COVID-19 outbreak became a global pandemic and sparked national lockdowns in several countries, more than 3,600 South Africans have reached out to the department of international relations and co-operation for assistance to return home.

SAA gives repatriations wings

Pandor’s ministry has been able to carry off the feat with assistance from troubled national carrier South African Airways (SAA). The flagship airline has operated both outbound and inbound chartered passenger and cargo flights.

Various foreign governments have approached SAA to charter flights and help repatriate their citizens from South Africa. “SAA continues to receive requests to charter services and is expected to operate other passenger and cargo flight in coming weeks,” it said in a statement.

Johannesburg Stock Exchange-listed diversified petrochemical company Sasol has donated one million litres of jet fuel, revealed Pandor. “This is enough to power an A340-600 aircraft for five long-haul trips.”

Read more: South African corporates step up to fight coronavirus

“[It] … will go a long way in assisting us to bring our citizens home and for the transportation of urgent medical supplies,” said Pandor.

Intricate affair

The department of International Relations is using its various missions aboard to negotiate the return of South Africans. This process is not only long, but also entails obtaining special permission to operate flights under lockdown conditions.

The department follows World Health Organisation guidelines on the coronavirus and screens citizens before they board any one of the approved flights.

South Africans showing COVID-19 symptoms are not permitted to board and are advised to follow their host country’s health regulations.

Furthermore, the returning South Africans have to pay airfare before being allocated seats on approved flights.

Once an inbound flight lands in South Africa, port health officials conduct on-board screening before passengers are permitted to disembark. When passengers receive all the necessary clearances, they are taken to designated facilities to quarantine for 14 days.

Lessons from Wuhan returnees

South Africa entered into its own lockdown on 26 March.

READ MORE:  South Africa in lockdown as Coronavirus cases spike

Before this, the South African government conducted an intricate operation to repatriate more than 100 citizens from Wuhan, China, where the coronavirus outbreak was first detected.

Upon landing home, those South Africans were transported to a ranch in Limpopo, north of Gauteng, where they spent 14 days in quarantine.

They were all released at the end of March after testing negative for COVID-19 and the ranch was declared a green zone.

South Africa documented its first confirmed coronavirus case when a group of 10 citizens returned from a holiday in Italy.

The latest information available shows that South Africa has 3,300 confirmed COVID-19 cases, 58 coronavirus-related deaths and conducted more than 120,000 tests.


No repatriation…

Kenya will not try to repatriate its three million citizens who live and work abroad, although it has offered to organise flights for some of them if they pick up the tab themselves.

In the meantime, Nairobi has asked its missions across the world to update citizen’s data but “without creating expectation of evacuation.”

While appearing before Parliament’s Defence and Foreign Relations Committee, Foreign Affairs Principal Secretary Macharia Kamau explained the complexities of trying to repatriate so many people from so many places at the same time.

READ MORE: Kenya’s fight against coronavirus difficult with its two-tiered governance system

“If we were to send a KQ [Kenya Airways] plane, for example, it would be a logistical nightmare for it to hop from one city to another, because land travel between cities is forbidden,” said an unnamed foreign affairs official before a media house.

…but there is one exception 

The issue of repatriating citizens became particularly tense after videos of Africans, among them Kenyans, were being mistreated in Chinese cities.

READ MORE: ‘Coronavirus diplomacy’: China’s opportune time to aid Africa

Nairobi summoned China’s ambassador, who said that many of the Africans had no valid papers. After the videos went viral, Kenya asked its citizens in China to provide information if they wanted to come back home.

However, those wishing to come home have to submit to a COVID-19 test before travelling and agree to 14 days in quarantine upon return to Kenya.

“If you are ready to travel under these conditions, fill the above QR code so that the bio data reaches the Embassy immediately,” read the communique.

Kenya relies heavily on its large diaspora community, who are now collectively the largest source of foreign currency. In March, Kenyans in the diaspora sent $228.9m back home; that’s  $10.1m more than the previous month.

Uganda caught in a bind

Uganda is considering barring Kenyan truck drivers from crossing the border between the two countries. The landlocked East African nation, which relies on its neighbors for access to the sea, has confirmed several cases of COVID-19 imported by truck drivers.

Without the option of shutting down its borders because it would inevitably affect the country’s supply chains, Uganda now wants trucking companies to have more than one driver, so that they can hand over at the border.


Measures in place

Egypt has 4,534 official cases of coronavirus. While other countries have imposed a strict lockdown, Cairo opted for a nightly curfew of 7pm to 6am (later changed to 8pm), along with the complete closure of all schools, universities, government institutions. A ban on big gatherings at mosques and churches was also imposed.

LISTEN: North Africa and coronavirus: “massively insufficient” measures

With the start of Ramadan on 23 April, the curfew has moved again, to 9pm, and looking ahead, Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly said that the government will gradually ‘open the economy’ and ease certain measures following Ramadan.

Distress calls from abroad

Egypt’s Ministry of Immigration and Egyptian Expatriates Affairs said that as of 29 March, it had received 11,121 complaints and distress calls from Egyptian nationals stranded abroad.

According to Nabila Makram, the Minister of Immigration and Egyptian Expatriates Affairs, the majority of those complaints came from nationals stranded in Gulf countries, as well as in the United States, as well as parts of Europe and sub-Saharan Africa.

The priority for action on the part of Cairo would be for those stranded on short business trips, emergency work, tourism or medical treatment.

Footing the bill

Those who are allowed to come home, are expected to pay for an additional flight.

At the end of March, just before boarding a flight, those returning were told that they had to also sign a statement declaring they would go into quarantine at the Méridien Cairo Airport hotel in Cairo, at their own expense. That’s LE900 (57 Euros) per day. After two weeks, the quarantine would set a person back by about LE12,600.

There was much social media outcry at this, and authorities finally agreed to cover the costs of the quarantine using money from the Tahya Misr (Long Live Egypt) public donations fund. But that moment was short-lived after the Minister of Information, Osama Heikal, clarified that nationals arriving the first week of April would be the only ones to benefit from the government-paid quarantine.

“Better to stay there”

“I came to Berlin on 17 February. And basically I was supposed to be leaving to Doha on 17 March for a conference. I had a flight back to Cairo on 31 March,” Joseph Fahim, a film critic and Egyptian national, told The Africa Report.

But by 15 March, all flights back to Egypt were suspended. “We basically had two days to go back and prices went way up.” Fahim opted to not pay for a flight then, assuming the price would go down.

But prices didn’t go down and so he remained in Berlin.

He realized he would only be able to get back to Egypt aboard a special flight. By 16 April, he was contacted by the Egyptian Embassy in Berlin and told that exceptional flights were being organized for stranded citizens.

The caveat: “Every applicant must pay his/her own flight and be locked in a quarantine in the Red Sea resort of Marsa Allam, that he/she must also pay for.”

Cost of the quarantine is about $50 per night for a shared room (with a stranger) he adds, or $100 for a single room.

He would then have to pay the air-fare from Marsa Allam back to Cairo. The costs (air fare and quarantine) would have to be paid up front, he said.

“A woman from the embassy called me last Monday [20 April] asking me if I wanna come back…I asked the embassy how can I trust a government that changes its policies every two weeks. She didn’t respond, before uttering the same words the other Egyptian diplomat told me ‘honestly, it’s better for you to stay in Berlin if you can.”


“Be patient”

Over 22,000 Moroccan nationals have so far contacted Morocco’s various diplomatic representations, according to the ministry’s data. Most of them are stuck in France, Spain and Turkey.

“Moroccans stranded abroad have to be patient. At the end of the crisis, they will be honoured to have made sacrifices,” said Nezha El Ouafi, the minister responsible for Moroccans living abroad (MRE), in a statement before the House of Representatives’ Foreign Affairs Committee, which was not enough to convince the dozen or so MPs – out of the 43 members of the standing committee – who were physically present in Parliament on 15 April.

In the meantime, the parliamentarians made several proposals to break the deadlock, such as “the requisition of boarding schools, hotels and other facilities to accommodate and gradually quarantine the 18,226 persons concerned.”

A source to Jeune Afrique added: “The most urgent thing is to facilitate money transfers to our Moroccan compatriots stranded abroad, which implies cooperation with the Foreign Exchange Office.”

One round of repatriation

But, just at the start of the pandemic, 167 Moroccan nationals were repatriated from Wuhan, following orders by King Mohammed VI.

Upon arrival, they were quarantined at hospitals in Meknes and Rabat and then later released.

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