Stranded South Africans running low on medication and hope

  • Stranded
When Capetonians Neil Plit – a severe asthmatic – and his new wife, Lauren, embarked on their honeymoon in Thailand early in March, they had been given the medical go-ahead following reports about the coronavirus in China. It was meant to be their dream trip, for which they had saved for two years.
by MIRAH LANGER | Apr 23, 2020

The couple were on honeymoon when the coronavirus pandemic escalated, causing a shutdown worldwide.

Now, after agonising attempts to get home, they are the only guests left in the more than 100-room resort. While deeply grateful for the assistance of the caring hotel staff, the experience of isolation can sometimes feel like being in the film The Shining, says Plit wryly.

People who say that say the couple are stuck in paradise misunderstand the situation. “You aren’t allowed out in public, you can’t swim. We have been advised not to leave the resort.”

When after a few days in Thailand the coronavirus surged to a cataclysmic event, the Plits desperately sought to cut short their honeymoon. By then, ticket prices home had leaped to more than R100 000, beyond any normal means.

Eventually, the couple got tickets to return on 26 March. They drove two hours to Phuket Airport, and stood waiting in a queue so long, it took three hours just to check in.

“Our tickets were processed, our bags were marked and sealed, but as that happened, a staff member came up and whispered to the lady at the counter. We were told that unfortunately, our country had closed its airspace to us, and we couldn’t travel,’’ Plit says.

The Plits decided their only recourse was to turn back to the resort, which has, since that day, assisted them in every way, including keeping a skeleton staff just for them, and reducing their rates.

Nevertheless they are far from home – and they feel it. Plit is unable to continue his work in property leasing and rental. Most tragically, the day after the couple were meant to fly home, Plit’s grandmother died.

“We couldn’t sit shiva [mourning] with the family. When something like this happens, you want to be together.”

He says they spend hours every day examining ways to get home. They are among hundreds of South Africans believed to be stranded in the region. Plit says they are caught in a catch-22 situation. While local representatives from the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) tell them they need to negotiate with commercial airlines to plan a flight, the airlines assert that they don’t deal with private individuals to make arrangements like this.

“You read in the media that South Africa is doing this and that. However, they are saying one thing and doing something completely different. We are in a state of complete limbo. It’s hard when you see people from every other country getting back home. It doesn’t seem like we matter to the country. I know we’re not alone, but it’s been a sobering experience.”

The Plits are among 3 960 South Africans who found themselves stuck in foreign lands when South Africa’s borders closed. Half of them have since been brought home.

“We are now considering phase two of our project, which would be to get families in local communities to adopt stranded South Africans, especially if they are in regions where there are very few of them and it’s becoming increasingly unlikely a plane will be able to access them,” says Darren Bergman, the chairperson of Home Away From Home, the support organisation grappling with how to assist those in dire need of getting home.

“People are becoming increasingly desperate. They are running out of chronic medication and money. The economic implications are a double-edged sword – not only are some stranded people running out of money abroad, but their support systems back home are struggling financially too,” says Bergman. “Yet, they are expected to battle a defeated rand and economy, and send money abroad, increasing difficulties all round.”

Bergman says another initiative is to partner with the international humanitarian aid organisation, Magen David Adom (Red Shield of David), to get medication to people. They are also hoping to collaborate with Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders), to fill prescriptions.

For fellow Capetonian Tyron Brivik, stuck in Argentina since 7 March, a holiday with his Mexican girlfriend (whom he met during the 2010 FIFA World Cup) has turned into a traumatic entrapment.

“No real progress has been made. I don’t know when I will get home,” he says.

Most recently, the couple made a desperate attempt to cross the border to get to Brazil from where a South African repatriation flight was taking off. They were given a deadline to get to the airport, but with the time it takes to process the requisite permit and the 48-hour bus ride they would have needed to take, it proved devastatingly unfeasible.

Brivik is now trying to live day-by-day within sparse means that are quickly running out. “I’m just trying to be strong to be able to maintain sanity. I think I’ll wear a cape of the South African flag when I get back.”

Durbanite Justine Segal is one of the success stories. Originally, she was with a group of 47 employees of MSC Cruises that got stuck at Heathrow Airport while in transit flying from Miami to South Africa as the coronavirus lockdown was imposed.

Since then, just in time for Pesach, she was repatriated on a flight organised by DIRCO. She is in quarantine at a hotel. She’s “very lucky”, Segal said.

While Bergman is pleased about these efforts, he notes that not all repatriation flight have been up to the same standard.

“[A recent repatriation] trip back from Rome was a wasted opportunity as there were only 88 people aboard a plane that had a capacity for at least a hundred more passengers.

“Had the logistics been better run by the local department, we could have been in contact with surrounding South African embassies where other stranded South Africans could have taken advantage of this flight.”

In a statement on 18 April, DIRCO said it wanted to “assure all South Africans stranded abroad that it is doing everything within its powers, to facilitate their return back home”. It said its efforts were “constrained by the restrictions imposed by different countries”.

“We deeply empathise with all who are still stranded abroad including in Peru, Indonesia, Thailand, and other countries. We would like to make an appeal for everyone to remain patient as we explore options,” the department stated.

Lunga Ngqengelele, a spokesperson for the department, confirmed that getting South Africans out of Asian countries was particularly problematic at the moment.

The hold-up is in getting permission from different countries for flights into their airspace, yet “some countries have just shut off their borders; you can’t even get someone to speak to”.

Nevertheless, he says South Africans officials are engaging in “serious negotiation” to reunite the rainbow nation.

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