SA family’s Catch-22 in Covid-19 plagued China
By Marlan Padayachee
Far away from the spate of human dramas triggered by the unprecedented outbreak of the deadly coronavirus and unfolding daily in many parts of the world, a South African family in China were quietly praying and hoping that their personal dilemma will blow away and this family of four will return to normal life.
So, when the Air-Zimbabwe jetliner touched down in Johannesburg - ferrying 200 stranded homesick South Africans from their ordeal with China’s aggressive coronavirus lockdown - in the early hours of last Tuesday, the Challenor family – formerly of Glenwood, Durban – breathed a big sigh of relief.
Despite the harrowing ordeal, the Challenor children will be reunited on Sunday, National Women’s Day, and they plan to travel by road immediately to find a new home in Cape Town to continue their studies.
Martin Robin and Cathy Challenor – both educationists - left South Africa to teach in China in 2017. The couple are among the thousands of South Africans who have shipped their skills abroad as the brain drain bloc continues its flight to better-paying, greener pastures posts – until the unexpected march of Covid-19 turned the tide on hordes of men, women and children who found themselves stranded in overseas countries.
As the coronavirus sped in the past few months, the Challenor’s adult children – Keah, 25, a law student at the University of Cape Town, and Joel Timothy, 22, undergraduate from the University of Pretoria, visited their parents in Gingbo, 1200 kilometres from the first epicentre of debilitating disease, Wuhan.
While Keah returned to her online studies, based in Johannesburg, in the nick of time before Covid-19 reared its ugly head outside the south-eastern Asian communist state before landing in South Africa – via high-rate infections in Spain, Joel found himself in a Catch-22 situation with Covid-19 for several months since his visit in January.
Speaking from his 14-day quarantine from an east-rand hotel near Johannesburg, Joel Challenor told me that he would not trade his freedom for anything in the world after his ordeal in coronavirus-plagued China.
Like this anxious student, the rest of the professional workers, teachers and students on the repatriated flight had returned to a job black out in a country – far more vulnerable to the economic woes than when they left SA - reeling under the pressure of a staggering Covid-19 infection rate of over 600 000 and up to 7 800 deaths.
Days after they were placed into stringent quarantine, Challenor told me: ‘’It is great to be back on home soil and feel free. I will not trade my freedom for greener pastures.’’
He added: ‘’When I tucked into a juicy steak meal, I knew I was safe and sound back home. ’We are all greatly relieved to be back.
‘’I was born into freedom in the late 1990s. Covid-19 has taught me to value freedom. I have learnt some valuable lessons while under lockdown in China. We have to change our attitudes about the way we are treating Mother Earth and the environment because this pandemic is not the first and will not be the last.’’
As the lockdown wore him down within the university complex town where his parents reside, he began riding an electric scooter to take his mind out of the challenges of returning to South Africa: ‘’I did not want to stay in China knowing that my visa was going to expire.’’
‘’I knew once the virus started in Wuhan, it would spread in China and then across the world. I did not mind taking the risk of coming back home.’’
‘’It was also not good to be stateless in a foreign country. In China, we had to get our passport scanned for online registration of our presence in any particular place to the police. It is not nice to be under a visa restriction.’’
Weeks after visiting his expatriate parents, he found himself trapped in a Catch-22 situation, and could not make a move for several months thereafter. During the stringent lockdown and curfew, the rest of his family were only allowed to leave their apartment after every two days to go shopping for food and provisions.
He observed: ‘’Chinese people are very disciplined. There is a language barrier so communication posed problems. They generally abide by the Covid-19 regulations long before the government and the police restricted movement.’’
When inter-city movement was relaxed, Challenor made a break to board his connecting flight from Wuhan on July 7. But he was to spend 20 extra days holed up in isolation in hotel when the Air Zimbabwe flight charted by former SA pilot Tertius Myburgh’s Maple Aviation, based in Toronto, Canada, was cancelled after the aircraft was diagnosed with engine problems in the Far East.
Little did his parents realise that when they dropped off their son at the airport that he would not be flying home. The scheduled flight was cancelled. Their son was left in a limbo, stranded in the city where the coronavirus took root for an agonizing three weeks. Some of the other passengers slept at the airport until the airline arranged to book them into hotels.
Many took to social media – particularly Facebook – to vent their grievances and air their hardships, blaming all and sundry, even pointing fingers at the SA government.
Meanwhile, thousands of kilometres away, the couple’s daughter, Keah, waited anxiously for WhatsApp and Facebook news and messages about her brother (China has a We Chat version of WhatsApp) and it was difficult to garner information, until her parents communicated with her in Johannesburg.
She returned home to study for her online examinations while keeping tabs on her brother’s repatriation: ‘’The whole ordeal was quite stressful. We were all anxious about Joel’s visa expiring while he was stranded in Wuhan.’’
‘’It was not easy focusing on exams and supporting my family remotely. I am happy and relieved now that my brother is safely home and I will pick him up once his quarantine ends next week and we will drive to Cape Town to start our life again,’’ she said.
‘’We don’t know when we will see our parents again, and it really saddens us.’’
Speaking from the Kopanong Hotel and Conference Centre, where all the passengers have been housed in separate rooms, Challenor continued with the interview: ‘’I was very nervous at the start of the coronavirus outbreak. However, I have always wanted to come back to my home country, despite facing the risk of South Africa’s spiraling infection and death rates.’’
‘’After the news got out that a South African man whose visa had expired was kept in detention, there was a feeling of fear among us.
‘’However, many of us held the view that we were prepared to risk our country’s high infection and death rate rather than being subjected to the threat of detention when our visas expired. The strict curfew and the lockdown were worrying.
‘’At first I was very nervous at the start of the coronavirus outbreak. Throughout this ordeal where local movement was stringently controlled, I have always wanted to come back to my home country. I cherish my freedom and I am happy and relieved to be home again.’’
‘’We have to get down to the root causes of coronavirus and examine how we treat Earth in future.’’
‘’My priority is now to get back to the new normal and enroll at a technikon to study and qualify to become an auto-electrician.’’
The on-off, on-off Boeing 767-200 Extended Range Flight AZW462, fitted with new engines, finally took to the skies out of Covid-19 capital on Monday, July 27 for its long haul to Africa.
Quietly happy in their hearts, but worried about returning to a country ranking in the top ten of the world’s pandemic hotspots, the passengers filed out, one by one, out of the aircraft, leaving behind the mainly Zimbabwean students and others for the onward flight to Harare. The passengers spent 18 hours on board the aircraft – including a two-hour stopover in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, for refuelling and to load meals and beverages.
‘’There was no social distancing protocol in the seating arrangements because the aircraft had to bring all the passengers who were stranded for months, some at the airport, and others were holed up in hotels for several weeks. All the passengers wore masks and the crew were kitted in white personal protective equipment from head to toes,’’ he said.
‘’The pilots and crew acted as if they were on a normal, routine flight and everything went smoothly though it was tiring and worrisome for most of the passengers.’’
He said the passengers paid R17 500 (USD 1 000) each and were treated to a single hot meal, bottled water and soft drinks during the flight. He paid R1 00 for his internal domestic flight to Wuhan.
The Challenor children have been living in a global bubble ever since their parents uprooted from Durban in 2010. They relocated to Welkom in the Free State, where they began teaching. In 2012 they migrated to Sharjah in the UAE before relocating to China.
Until the quarantine ends on the eve of National Women’s Day, this batch of repatriated economic migrants and students will be treated to sumptuous hot meals, bottled water, soft drinks and fruit juices – courtesy of the taxpayers. And they like Joel Challenor are hugely grateful for the home-sweet-home hospitality from a government under the siege of controlling a runaway deadly disease that continues to claim casualties.
* Marlan Padayachee is a seasoned journalist who works as a consulting media strategist and researcher and is currently producing a legacy yearbook, Indians Under the African Sun, marking 160 years of the trials and tribulations of this stoical economic migrant community of indentured labourers, traders and professional people from India from 1860 to 1911 and onto 2020.