OR Tambo International Airport, one of Africa’s busiest airports, was bustling on Wednesday morning, especially at international departures as the country’s nationwide lockdown loomed.
Passengers hurried down the corridors, checking their flight times on screens and wrapping their luggage in plastic, while others queued at check-in counters to make their way out of South Africa’s coronavirus (Covid-19) epicentre province, Gauteng.
The 21-day shutdown, which was announced by President Cyril Ramaphosa on Monday evening, is a measure to reduce the spread of the Covid-19 disease.
The lockdown will kick in on Thursday evening at midnight and last until 16 April.
On Wednesday morning, Health Minister Zweli Mkhize announced that the country had 709 positive cases of Covid-19. So far, there had not been any fatalities. Patients are said to be improving, but two are in ICU at a private hospital.
The looming lockdown resulted in scores of people making sudden changes to their plans and finding flights to their preferred destinations, rather than be stuck for 21 days at locations far from their homes.
Reward Nkomo from Zimbabwe sat patiently on the benches, sighing with relief that he was closer to home. He was catching the 11.25am flight to Victoria Falls.
Nkomo is an overland safari guide and had travelled to South Africa to drop off company vehicles. He works for a tourism company which transports tourists from the country to east Africa.
“I managed to book my flight yesterday and it has been confirmed. It’s better to be home during this time. I came into South Africa yesterday (Tuesday) because I had to transit some vehicles back to South Africa as most of our trips have been cancelled,” Nkomo said.
The Zimbabwean national said the spread of the virus had hit their line of business hard.
Nkomo said he was grateful that he was flying home because he would have been stranded with no place to go. During his journey to South Africa, he said he encountered some hotels in Botswana that were not taking people in, and at some point he had to sleep at a filling station.
Nkomo said he was also alarmed after hearing that a person from Zimbabwe had died because of the virus.
“I am concerned about the virus because I can see what it is doing globally and we just hope a solution can be found,” he said.
Some of the domestic flights out from OR Tambo were headed to Cape Town, Mthatha, Durban and Port Elizabeth, while international destinations included Dubai, Frankfurt and London.
Father James Munyanyi, of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Masvingo in Zimbabwe, was among those waiting for a 12.55pm flight to Harare.
The priest had been on sabbatical in Port Elizabeth since January. He, however, had to cut short his stay by eight days because he did not want to be stuck in South Africa. His initial flight back home was scheduled for 3 April.
“I had to reschedule to beat time because I didn’t want to be locked in South Africa,” he said.
Munyanyi, who had his mask on as he sat with two other fellow congregants, said while he is frightened by the virus he believes “God is speaking to the world”.
Debbie Botha, from George, was also among those waiting anxiously for her flight home. She had been in Durban to visit her sister in Eshowe, but will be returning home because of the lockdown.
“I was actually supposed to come back on Sunday or Monday, but with this virus I had to get [an earlier] flight to be able to go back home,” Botha said.
Botha added that when she got home and the lockdown kicked in, she would be reading books and watching movies.
Airlines like SAA, Kulula, British Airways, and Flysafair, among others, are suspending all their flights for the duration of the lockdown.