Forget lockdown, we are stuck in Doha airport with no way to get home, says Bay paramedic

Bay paramedic Clifford Hanks (not pictured) and, from left, Zwelinjani Meyiwa, Benjamin Sturgeon, Athanasios Varonou, Jan Beetge and Banjamin Sturgeon are trapped in the Doha International Airport
Bay paramedic Clifford Hanks (not pictured) and, from left, Zwelinjani Meyiwa, Benjamin Sturgeon, Athanasios Varonou, Jan Beetge and Banjamin Sturgeon are trapped in the Doha International Airport
Image: supplied

As Port Elizabeth recorded its first two Covid-19 cases last night, a Port Elizabeth paramedic  — desperate to get home, self-isolate and then help others — and five other South Africans were trapped in the Doha International Airport, unable to set a foot outside and also unable to fly home.

The medic, Cliff Hanks, 37, and five others from Johannesburg and Durban have been trying since Thursday to get back to SA.

The men are forbidden from leaving the airport as they were on a stopover flight back to SA and do not know where they will sleep.

Clifford Hanks
Clifford Hanks
Image: Supplied

They were all racing home to beat the lockdown, which started at midnight, to try to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

The number of Covid-19 cases had risen to 927 last night.

Health MEC Sindiswa Gomba confirmed that, of these, five were in the Eastern Cape.

They included a man and a woman in Port Elizabeth, one of whom had travelled to Austria and other countries in Europe and the other one who had travelled to England.

“One was tested at Livingstone Hospital while the other one tested privately,” Gomba said.

“They are quarantined but I can’t say whether by the state or privately in their own homes because the law allows people to do both.”

Gomba said a third person, a man who had recently travelled from Italy, where he had been working, was from Xhora (previously Elliotdale) in the Amatole district municipality.

The two other positive Covid-19 Eastern Cape cases, in East London, were revealed at the weekend.

Meanwhile, a devastated Hanks said: “I was in Australia visiting family when news of the lockdown hit.

“I immediately started booking return flights home.

“At that stage, there was no talk of banning international flights.

“We landed at Doha to get a connecting flight, but were told that a [South African] minister had announced that all international flights were cancelled.”

Hanks said they had been trying for hours to get answers.

“Qatar Airways is confused and has grounded all its flights into the country based on what the minister said.

“However, it is still unclear if citizens are allowed back into the country,” he said.

“Even the airline is confused as to what to do and is looking for clarity.”

Hanks said they had been stunned when they finally got hold of someone at the SA Embassyonly to be told: “It is a difficult time.”

“He said: ‘We have no answers, nowhere to go’.

“We cannot leave the airport so we are camping out on airport chairs waiting.

“I asked the Qatar Airways manager to show me the letter stating that flights were stopped and he showed me a newspaper clipping that was e-mailed to them from the SA office — there is no official communication.”

Their passports were taken by the authorities at midday.

“Everyone is very worried. I have a family at home who I cannot get to and no-one can give us answers.

“I cut my trip short to come back and go into self-quarantine so that I can get back to work as soon as possible due to the medical crisis.

“I could be there assisting but am now stuck in an airport.”

An Airports Company SA (Acsa) spokesperson said it had been in contact with the Qatar SA office and the airline was aware that the lockdown  would only come into effect after midnight.

The men’s predicament emerged just days afterit came to light that 30 South Africans were stranded in Morocco.

DA MP Darren Bergman called on international relations and co-operation (Dirco) minister Naledi Pandor to intervene.

Bergman said he was dealing with about 250 South Africans stuck in various countries overseas, including France, Dubai, Morocco, Italy, New Zealand and the US.

“I have been working nonstop with Dirco staff to try to get some of these people home.

“I am working on trying to resolve these issues as best possible,” he said.

“Some of these issues stem from poor communications.

“The minister stated that airlines were shut down but it appears no-one has fully briefed the airlines and given the specifics.

“This has led to mass confusion and the reason why some are trapped.”

Bergman said with regard to the Doha incident, it appeared to be a miscommunication.

“So the airlines themselves are still active. They, however, state that they heard the airports [in SA] were closed.

“I have called OR Tambo and it is open and taking certain flights.

  “In some cases, we managed to get people on charter planes but in many cases, people are still stranded.

“I am trying to get this resolved, however it is very difficult when the minister is unreachable.”

Pandor’s spokesperson, Lunga Ngqengelele, blamed either a lack of flights or countries going into lockdown for people getting stuck.

“With the number of travel bans, there are several people trying to leave and get back to SA.

“This is largely a commercial airline issue at the moment. If the airlines stop, there is no way to leave.

“We have thousands who want to leave the country and some of the flights have stopped,” he said.

“We are trying to negotiate with those governments that have banned the planes from leaving but if it is a commercial airline issue, there is not much we can do.”

Asked about the airports being closed, Ngqengelele referred questions to the department of transport.

Transport department spokesperson Sam Monareng referred questions to Acsa.