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Africa's busiest airport says foreigners can't disembark

An elderly passenger arrives in a wheelchair at Johannesburg's O.R. Tambo International Airport, Monday, March 16, 2020.

DENIS FARRELL/AP

By CARA ANNA | Associated Press | Published: March 20, 2020

JOHANNESBURG — Anxiety rose in Africa's richest nation Friday as South Africa said coronavirus cases jumped to 202, the most in the sub-Saharan region, while the continent's busiest airport said foreigners cannot disembark. State-owned South African Airways suspended all international flights until June.

And in a serious risk of local transmission, South Africa said five of its new cases had attended a church gathering of more than 200 people in central Free State province. All had arrived from abroad. Authorities were rushing to find other attendees.

Another new South Africa case was a health worker who had been in a number of private hospitals.

Johannesburg's O.R. Tambo International Airport said aircraft with foreigners "will be contained at an isolated bay with all officials ensuring the utmost care is taken," following up on travel restrictions announced days ago when South Africa declared a national disaster. "We are working with the airline to ensure that foreign nationals return to the country of origin."

Foreigners across the continent of more than 1.3 billion people face the growing chance of being stranded as countries close borders and block flights.

The financially troubled South African Airways said the immediate suspension of all international flights through May 31 was because of coronavirus-related travel restrictions and the "substantial decline in demand" for air travel.

"It is all our responsibility, not just government, to curb further transmission of the virus," CEO Zuks Ramasia said in a statement. "In addition, the increasing risks to our crew of contracting the virus, including the possibility of being trapped in foreign destinations as a consequence of increasing travel bans, cannot be ignored."

SAA flies to New York, London, Frankfurt, Munich and Washington — all in what South Africa now considers high-risk countries.

Also Friday, another African nation announced its first case, Cape Verde. Thirty-seven countries on the continent now have cases, with a total now well above 800.

So far most of the cases in Africa have been linked to overseas travel. But overnight Niger in announcing its first case highlighted possible regional spread inside the continent. Its citizen had traveled via the West African capitals of Togo, Ghana, Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso.

Sierra Leone President Julius Maada Bio directed the military to the international airport and land borders to increase security and "and support compliance with all public health directives" while calling on people not to panic.

"If you cannot do so voluntarily then we will keep you in isolation by force," Kenya's health chief, Mutahi Kagwe, has warned.

Deaths across Africa from the virus reached 20 as Gabon reported its first. No one has died in South Africa, where the health minister said no patient was in intensive care.

All but 23 of South Africa's cases are in people under age 60.

"The virus is going to be with us for quite a while," the minister, Zweli Mkhize, told reporters. "In fact, it's going to be one of those viruses that our bodies have to build new immunity to be able to deal with and defeat."

This is a reality people must face, he said, "but it's not a reality that says we are facing an apocalypse."

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Clarence Roy-Macaulay in Freetown, Sierra Leone contributed.

The Associated Press receives support for health and science coverage from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.
 

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