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The U.S. ambassador to South Africa has personally requested the nation’s transport minister to ease a travel ban on American visitors, as foreigners desperately try to get home ahead of a planned 21-day lockdown due to the coronavirus outbreak.
Last week, the government banned entry to the country to all passport-holders from countries identified by the World Health Organization as high-risk for the COVID-19 virus. This was implemented while several flights were already in the air from the U.S. with a NOTAM — a message to pilots that comes up on a cockpit screen as a Notice to Airmen.
Upon landing, the travellers were refused entry to South Africa and had to find a return flight. For many, this wasn’t immediately possible, as within hours of them landing the country’s national airline South African Airways cancelled all its international flights until May 31.
U.S. Ambassador Lana Marks, who Fox News understands is practicing social distancing by working from home, persuaded airlines to help provide charter flights to rescue the stranded passengers, and, it’s believed, other U.S. citizens who had been visiting South Africa before the travel ban.
Additionally, the ambassador managed to convince the feisty and controversial South African transport minister, Fikile Mbalula, to change his mind and make a U-turn on a publicly stated position regarding country’s ports being closed — which had stranded hundreds of passengers on board two cruise liners, the Silver Cloud and the Norwegian Spirit. Passengers could be seen leaning over deck rails in Cape Town’s harbor, but not allowed off because of Mbalula’s declaration.
Yet Marks got the minister to allow Americans visitors off the ships and on charter planes home.
“I have been liaising directly with the minister, and he, at my request, gave permission for additional charter flights, to transport these U.S. citizens back to the United States, which we are currently arranging,” Marks told Fox News in an exclusive statement.
She continued: “The minister also approved for all the cruise ships to enter the port, and for the passengers to directly access those charter flights that were arranged for them by these cruise lines. I have been in constant contact with senior executives at several airlines and cruise lines in the United States, and would say that all parties have been working together extremely efficiently and well.”
However, other foreign nationals have not all been so lucky getting out of the country.
According to sources, the South African police flying squad drove 60 miles to intercept four buses they alleged were carrying Chinese travelers who had been denied entry into South Africa last Friday.
The police then forced the buses the 128 miles back to the border with Mozambique, where they’d come from. Only then was it discovered that those aboard the buses were Japanese nationals who had been evacuated by their embassy in Mozambique by land to Johannesburg’s airport for a charter flight home.
Sources said police appeared to not ask for identification after they stopped the buses. Japanese passports have the word JAPAN printed on the front.
The police subsequently had to escort the buses back into South Africa and to Johannesburg’s airport so they could take a flight home.
South African residents, some 57 million people, have been told to stay home starting Friday. It has seen at least 554 cases as of Tuesday morning — the most of any country in Africa.
The unprecedented lockdown announced by President Cyril Ramaphosa this week will force all residents – except for essential workers – to stay home for three weeks, until April 16.
The South African army, the SANDF, has been deployed throughout Johannesburg to ensure people do not go out.
Additionally, the measures prevent international travelers who arrived in South Africa after March 9 from “high-risk countries” from leaving and they must be confined to their hotels under they have completed a 14-day period of quarantine, Rampahosa said.
“This will work,” said Malawian specialist Dr. Ben Chavula to Fox News, referring to the 21 day-lockdown. “Lockdown will reduce the reproduction of the infection, that is, there will be a reduced number of people that each case infects – what is called a reduced incidence. This will then improve the COVID-19 epidemic curve.”
Marks told Fox News that American travelers who live in the U.S. should “seek to arrange for immediate return to the United States unless they are prepared to remain abroad for an indefinite period.”
South Africans have been quick to react to the lockdown.
“Do not panic, do not be selfish,” Zweli Mbhele told Fox News.
Kuhle Shange, a nurse working in Pretoria, proudly posted a photo of himself with seven nursing colleagues on Twitter.
“We are scared, but we promised to protect and take care of you during this difficult time,” he wrote.