🔒 Our coronavirus correspondents, the Cronjes, home in SA – seek return to China soonest

Over the past month and a half we’ve had a couple of fascinating interviews with Durban teachers Gary and Andy Cronje while they were in the heart of Coronavirusland. Getting home – on their own steam – was quite a challenge, but they did so primarily for economic reasons as schools were closed and Chinese employers apply a strict no work, no pay policy. Now in Johannesburg and self-imposed isolation until the end of the month, it may surprise you that they’re itching to get back to China. Here’s the full discussion with the duo drawn from the latest episode of Rational Radio. – Alec Hogg

You might remember that on the 3rd of February and again on the 24th of February, we spoke with Gary and Andy Cronje, South African teachers from Durban who were in China teaching English and right in the middle of the coronavirus. Welcome. And you’re back in South Africa, but weren’t part of the airlift?

No, we weren’t. We didn’t qualify to be in the airlift because we were not in Wuhan itself.

And what brought you home?

Well, obviously, we were missing South Africa. We were starting to get really, really tired of being an isolation and we managed to actually get a flight out of China that wasn’t too expensive. And also, with regards to the coronavirus, it affected many Chinese companies financially so, with that has come salary cuts for foreign teachers – I think for most of the people – so it made  a bit more financial sense to come home for now.

Just elaborate a little there. If you’re in China and you don’t go to work, presumably they don’t have labour relations like in this country and you just don’t get paid?

What has happened is most of the companies have moved on to online schooling, but now instead of paying you a full rate they have dropped you down to maybe an hourly rate, which is far less than what you would normally get. So Gary’s company stopped paying him entirely. One day, they were just giving him his living allowance, which covered the rent.

Gary I remember in our very first conversation, you said you felt that other countries are going to battle to contain the virus because the Chinese – being an autocracy – were able to do what they did do with the army, forcing people to stay where they were, making sure that they didn’t leave. And I guess your words were rather prophetic.

Yes, I saw what the Chinese did.  I’ve been to eight different countries in the world and I’ve seen what they’re capable of and the people’s attitudes towards something catastrophic. I’ve seen that South Africa the media has really made this virus, the COVID-19 into a very sensational thing that if you got it, you’re going to die. And it’s not that bad.

It is serious, obviously.

Yes. But not that if you’re going to get it, you’re going to die and you’re going to be sick, you’re going to be uncomfortable. And if the government can help you or the doctors and nurses are qualified to help you, you’re going to make it

Have either of you got the virus?

No. We, we were chatting to our doctor friends in China, and we were at the end of December last year. Yeah, early January and we were sick, Andy had a bad cough and temperature. I got sick, I had bubbles in my lungs. It was that bad the doctor actually said, “Listen, you are sicker than your wife.” But I didn’t have a temperature. My son Morgan had to go to the paediatrician. He was also coughing, temperature, everything. And when we spoke to our colleague now in China, that is a doctor, they said, “Well, there was an Englishman that was diagnosed in November with the virus but they didn’t want to say anything until it was made public.”

So, it was okay, we’re fine. When we arrived in South Africa, everyone sort of, did three steps back when they saw us. 

Yes, the one mother said to say to her two children, “Close your mouth, don’t go near those people.”

Did you have masks on?

We all had to have masks on. 

In China at the moment there are only two flights a week out with Air China. So we started a very, very long track back the previous Sunday. So we’ve been in South Africa for eight days now and we haven’t shown any signs and signed more declarations than we care to.

How come?

We went from Hangzhou and had to fly  to Beijing. We then had to sign health declarations as well as show that green code that we previously discussed.

And we had to give our address where our final destination was.

Seat numbers for the planes and  contact telephone numbers. We did that in Beijing. Then we flew from Beijing to Shenzhen, which I must say Beijing was a ghost town. Very few people, very few places open and if there was a coffee shop, you can’t sit as a family. We weren’t allowed to sit at one table we have to sit at separate tables one and a half meters away from each other. It was quite difficult.

The Chinese have certainly got a focus on this. So, this is early March. This isn’t when the height of the virus was hitting China.

We left on the eighth. We arrived back on the ninth, yes. We had a health scan, you know, temperature test, body cannon scan, you know, all of that. And Beijing, same thing had to fill out documents. We went to Shenzhen from there, because there’s not enough people going, so we had to stop in Shenzhen to refuel and to collect additional…

And they checked our  temperatures during the flights as well. 

Yes. And then during the flight, they also said that we must wear our masks the whole time. We must only take them off to eat, then we put them back on.

Presumably this suggests that maybe you got the virus in December, when you had the cough, the fever, and now you’re over it.

Yes, we have another friend in South Africa, an ex-Chinese national. He was saying to my mother and father-in-law that we probably did have a milder case of it. But we weren’t being tested for it at that point. 

So, I think unknown to the world…

We are strong. We survived; I think it’s the South African in us that helped us because we all have a little bit of extra weight that got me to work again.

I thought it has to do with the immune system, not with the extra weight.

Yeah, it was quite the experience coming back in the flight from Shenzhen to Beijing. Obviously when we cleared customs there was a lot of questions asked, a lot of declarations that we needed to fill in again, to make sure and anybody who had a slightly raised body temperature was removed from the flight. 

They they were very careful.

So what happened was when you got home to South Africa?

When we were getting off the plane, we arrived in OR Tambo, throughout the flight coming here, they were checking our temperatures constantly.  I’m not too sure how many hourly intervals but throughout the flight, they were checking, we eventually got used to seeing something in our peripheral vision and just handed out our wrists so they can check our temperature. Got back to South Africa, everyone gets up as the plane touches down, we’ve got all of our things and then an announcement comes back saying, “No, you all have to return to your seat.” So we returned to our seats we handed in more declarations, final destination where we’re going to be and the South African government health officials climbed on-board.

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So then they boarded the plane and they took everybody’s temperature, they made sure to double  check everybody’s temperature and then we were allowed to disembark. When we disembarked, we first went to a body scanner and before we hit customs, they did a physical hand scanner to our face, to see that we didn’t have any temperatures or any abnormalities.

But it was quite funny because as we arrived, the people from China were coming into the corridor from another plane. They saw everyone with masks on and they all  stopped dead in their tracks and backtracked.

But it sounds to me like that’s quite a thorough examination.

It is quite, in a 15-hour flight, I would think if anybody was going to have something that they would have shown some form of a fever. Same with us, we’ve been at home now, self-quarantining and we haven’t showed anything yet. We were just being cautious. 

At the South African airport, the people had their masks on and everybody was friendly.

But just the ones from China, no one else had masks on.

None of the other plane passengers had masks, but the officials all had their masks on. They were ready for us; they saw us through and as we came through the doors into the public, everybody looked at us in a funny way.  “People we have masks on. We are from China.”

Doesn’t mean we’re going to kill you.

Yes, one thing that I have against that is we were supposed to actually be taken to quarantine, have a specific designated area, all people from China. Stay in this quarantine maybe three, four days, in a hotel or something and just six or seven days even when most of the cases present themselves and have us scanned and then say, “You can now go meet the public.” Where we just walked through. 

Yes, had we been sick or just carriers, we can infect other people.

Because just as we were going to fly back president Ramaphosa announced that they were going to quarantine people. So, we phoned the embassy to find out and they said, “No, don’t worry if you’re not showing any symptoms of it, you’re through.”

It sounds like you’re learning on the fly here, but there are not too many people now who know how it’s going. Presumably you listened to President Ramaphosa’s announcement last night?

We watched it last night

What do you make of it?

Look, he’s overcautious. He has to be.

Especially with the children. 

My thought is if something happens, and everybody does sensational buying now, all the mass hysteria of buying everything like Australia, all the toilet paper and that type of stuff, the balance of scales will be out and there will be problems. People will start fighting, people will start getting in each other’s hair. Where in China, we never experienced that. Nobody went out to random buying they knew everything is in control.

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It would be total chaos.

In South Africa I don’t think the public has the confidence in our country to say, “Listen, we will have enough food, we will have enough stock, we will have enough medicine. We have the facilities to deal with this”

Yes, after the address last night there was the national call centre number that came through. It was the an 0800 number that if you were suspected to be in contact with anybody with COVID-19 you should call it. But I tried to phone it this morning just to find out that we have arrived from China. We are showing no symptoms, would they like us to be tested and I think it was at seven this morning, I was number 483 in the queue.

Ah, unintended consequences. Gary and Andy lovely talking with you and well once the self-imposed quarantine is over what are you guys gonna be doing?

We’re gonna get out of the town and just have a little bit of a sunshine holiday, I think some vitamin D and vitamin C.

Gary, would you ever go back to China?

Definitely, we are planning and just waiting, Ramaphosa said, you know, all visas will be cancelled. So we are just waiting for China to say the gates are open and we can go back because we’ve got work lined up. We just need to get back. But we told our employers that we are stuck, we’re just waiting for the legalities so that we can get back. We we trust the Chinese government in handling this whole situation.