HE DIDN’T need any convincing to fly into what’s become known as the heart of the deadly Covid-19 outbreak. The moment he received the call he knew it was something he needed to do for his country.
In fact, he’d do it again in a heartbeat even though he’s now in isolation for 21 days to ensure he hasn’t contracted the virus that’s killed thousands of people around the globe.
We’re chatting to SAA chief pilot Vusi Khumalo a day after he landed the plane bringing 114 South Africans back from Wuhan, China. The 54-year-old has joined the repatriated citizens at The Ranch Resort in Limpopo but he’s in high spirits as he tells us about the flight that gripped the nation.
He can’t take all the credit, he says, modest to a fault. “I know that people see my face but there were a lot of people involved in this mission. It was a team effort.”
He and his team did lots of research beforehand because they were told they might have to fly to China to retrieve their countrymen, he says.
So when President Cyril Ramaphosa made the decision the South Africans in Wuhan would be brought home,
Vusi was ready.
“I said, ‘Let’s do all we can to help the president keep his promise to the people of South
Africa’,” he says.
He was at home in Cape Town with his wife and kids when he got the call to pilot the plane. Although it was a military operation, the air force doesn’t have an aircraft that’s big enough so they had to rely on an SAA Airbus A340600 manned by Vusi and his crew.
“They said, ‘We go tomorrow’, and I said, ‘Okay’,” he recalls. “I didn’t have to think twice about it.”
WHEN Vusi’s wife, Dr Koketso Moloto, heard what he was planning to do she begged him to reconsider – but after watching videos from virus-ravaged Wuhan he knew people were counting on him.
“There was no way I was going to leave them stranded in China,” he says.
He wasn’t too worried about catching Covid-19, Vusi adds – he was confident there were solid plans in place to keep him and the rest of the crew safe.
“I don’t really worry about death because we’re all going to die,” he says. “At least if I catch the virus, I’ll have a chance to say goodbye rather than an instant death in a car accident.”
But the thing that did concern him was the impact his mission would have on his children. His three youngest kids are all under 15 and he has three older daughters from a previous marriage.
He feared that his younger children
might be ostracised at school so to protect them he decided not to tell them about the mission.
“I just said I’ll be gone for a long time and will tell you when I come back.”
And now what a story he has to tell them. Before he could fly Vusi had to undergo tests to check he was healthy enough to go on the trip.
“Some of the people actually failed the test,” he says. “I would’ve been devastated.”
He and the crew were also trained how to wear protective suits and prepare for things that could potentially go wrong on the aircraft.
Before they took off, medics took their temperatures and they were continually monitored during the flight.
The crew consisted of 14 cabin members, two technicians and two security personnel. Also travelling with them were 16 doctors and nurses from the health department and the South African national defence force.
“It was a hell of a mission,” Vusi says. They spent two days in the Philippines to rest before heading to China. That meant they could limit their stopover in Wuhan to just two hours, way under the eight hours they were given by the Chinese authorities.
“We landed, refuelled, passengers came onboard and we left,” Vusi says.
He remembers watching the passengers as they boarded the plane.
“The first person I saw was a child running to the aircraft and she was happy,” he recalls. “I said to my colleague, ‘This makes it all worth it’.”
After weeks of being on lockdown to curb the spread of the virus, Wuhan remains a ghost town.
“As we left, they actually switched on the [airport] lights because no one was flying in there. All the aircraft were parked,” Vusi recalls.
After the 14-hour return trip it was relief to finally touch down on home soil – but nothing could’ve prepared him for the hero’s welcome he received.
“There were people lining the streets to welcome us when we were driving to the resort.”
ALTHOUGH he’s happy to have played his part, he admits it’s going to be hard being separated from his family for so long. Those in quarantine were able to bring along books and computers and he’s grateful there’s Wi-Fi so he can make video calls to his family.
Although his wife initially wasn’t keen on him taking part in the mission, she supported him all the way.
“She’s a psychiatrist so she understands what it’s like to serve and do something for other people.”
Vusi had big dreams as a little boy growing up in Tlhabane, Rustenburg in the North West.
He’s the only son and ninth born in a family of 10 children who lived with their priest father and domestic worker mom in a four-room house.
He fell in love with flying when he was in Grade 4. “I was in class one day and could hear this helicopter flying over and landing in front of our school.”
Vusi watched in awe as the pilot disembarked to refuel before taking off again. He told a friend he was going to fly planes one day.
His dream almost didn’t materialise when he wasn’t accepted into the air force in 1984 because of the colour of his skin.
“I was so mad. I still have the letter they sent me,” he says.
But Vusi decided he wasn’t going to let this stop him and enrolled at a private college in 1985.
To pay the fees, he worked part-time as a packer at Clicks and his dad also helped him out.
The first time he set foot in an aircraft was during his first lesson.
Vusi flew for another airline for five years before joining SAA in 1994, becoming one of the company’s first four black pilots.
He hopes one day he’ll be able to start his own aviation school so he can pass on what he’s learnt. But for now he’s just grateful to be able to serve.
There are many highlights in his long career, including leading the SAA fly-past formation during Ramaphosa’s inauguration ceremony and having the president on board one of the planes he flew. But the Wuhan mission tops them all. “We were doing something for our people,” he says. “We weren’t forced to do it. It was a choice.”
UNTIL early March, we were relatively unscathed. It was a crisis playing out in other countries, making other people sick, killing other people’s loved ones. Now it’s here. And it’s very much our crisis too. When a solemn President Cyril Ramaphosa stood before the nation and declared Covid-19 a national disaster, life as we knew it stopped.
Everything we do until the virus has run its course will be done under the spectre of the disease.
This is our real moment, he said – because we all have the obligation to halt the spread. If we don’t, the consequences could be catastrophic.
Communities already vulnerable as a result of TB and HIV would be decimated if the virus takes hold and Ramaphosa isn’t taking any chances.
The president was widely praised for his no-nonsense approach to the virus, which is far more decisive than anything the UK and the US did when the numbers started ratcheting up.
No school until after Easter. No visitors allowed into SA from high-risk countries, including Italy, Iran, South Korea, Spain, Germany, the United States, the UK and China.
South Africans who travelled to highrisk areas as far back as mid-February must have themselves tested. No gatherings of more than 100 people – even if it’s your wedding day.
“Anywhere where 100 people or more gather is what we want to prevent,” says Popo Maja, spokesperson for the national department of health. If you own a restaurant, use your discretion not to exceed this limit.
“People need to use their common sense at all times.”
A RAY OF HOPE: LESSONS FROM TAIWAN
When Covid-19 broke out in China, Taiwan was ranked as one of the most at-risk countries – it’s just 130km from mainland China and millions of people travel between the two countries each year.
Taiwan was one of the countries worst hit by the Sars virus 17 years ago. Yet at the time of going to press, the island nation, which is home to 23 million people, had only 67 reported cases and one death.
In December, when the Chinese first started reporting Covid-19 cases, Taiwanese authorities sent a fact-finding mission to China and imposed swift travel bans and quarantines. It also restricted the export of face masks.
The island’s success is all the more remarkable considering China has tried to stop Taiwan engaging with the United Nations or the World Health Organization (WHO).
“This means information WHO members get as matter of course is not available to Taiwan,” says Richard Bush of research organisation the Brookings Institution.
Effective controls in Taiwan can be attributed to the use of technology, a central command centre, a world-class
as others in Taiwan,” a government spokesperson says. “We have to prevent more infections and fatalities.”
In Italy, the worst-hit country after China, medics are faced with a grim decision: who to treat and who to let die. Doctors and nurses can’t treat everybody and there are too few ventilators for the thousands of patients.
Things are so dire the Italian College of Anaesthesia, Analgesia, Resuscitation and Intensive Care published guidelines medical personnel can follow in these extraordinary times.
As in wartime, doctors and nurses must revert to employing “catastrophe medicine”. Instead of providing intensive care to all patients who need it, they need to determine which patient is likely to live and who is likely to die. According to the guidelines, “People who are too old to have a likelihood of recovery or have too low a number of life years left even if they survive, should be left to die.”
A patient’s overall state of health is also a criteria. “What might be a relatively short treatment course in healthier people could be longer and more resource-consuming in the case of older or more fragile patients.” health centre and swift decision-making, The Guardian reports.
Normal life is pretty much carrying on in Taiwan. Schools and offices are open and restaurants, gyms and cafés are bustling.
Most places take people’s temperatures before entrance is allowed and spray hands with hand sanitiser.
Face masks have become a way of life, although they are limited to three per customer per week.
Authorities also use advanced surveillance tracking via people’s cellphones. If they travel too far outside designated areas, they receive a message warning them to turn around or they will be fined.