Chinese joining the scramble to escape Ebola

Fear and rumour are fellow passengers on an Air France flight from Freetown to Paris, and from death stalking three West African nations

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 August, 2014, 6:20am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 August, 2014, 11:48am


The Chinese fleeing Ebola, angry Africans, an understaffed flight crew and rumours on an Air France flight from Freetown to Paris seemed to encapsulate the global panic in the face of the disease.

Stories swirl around the cabin. Apparently the same flight a few days ago carried three ill children, one with fever, two with diarrhoea. Could be Ebola, could be harmless childhood sickness, who knows? No matter, passengers still asked to move seats.

And it's not just the passengers who are fearful. The crew is short-staffed because employees are not beating down the door of the Airbus A330 to fly to or from West Africa.

Air France is one of few still flying to affected countries, as nations close their borders over fear of the outbreak that has claimed more than 1,400 lives.

No one wore masks on the 20-minute hop between Freetown and Conakry, nor the long-haul flight to Paris that landed early on Thursday morning. But the tension was palpable.

"I had to close my textiles shop to go back to China," said Wu Guogang, 60, fleeing the Ebola outbreak with his wife.

They explained they had left behind the fruit of a decade of work building up a business that employs three people.

"Lots of the Chinese are leaving. If they stay, they might die," he said. "We hope that Europe and the United States will soon find a good cure to solve the [Ebola] problem." Until then, they will take refuge with their son in southern China.

Another passenger, Trevor Simumba, 44, said he was forced to make a round trip of thousands of kilometres, as airlines changed schedules and nervous countries closed borders.

South Africa on Thursday banned non-citizens from travelling from "high-risk countries" Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Kenya has also closed its borders to travellers from those countries while the Ivory Coast closed its borders with neighbouring Guinea and Liberia.

Simumba pointed out that "there have been already five epidemics in Uganda, a neighbouring country of Kenya, and the borders were never closed".

After Kenya Airways cancelled its flights, Simumba was forced to take an Air France flight in and out of Europe in order to fly within Africa. "I have to go via Paris and Amsterdam to get back to Lusaka," he said. "The ticket change cost my company thousands of dollars."

A French expat, Francois Gatineau, 27, was much calmer as he flew home for holidays after four months in Freetown.

"I'm on holiday for four weeks. After that? Yeah, I'll come back. My work is interesting," said the young finance director for a shipping company.

However, he said his family was worried. "But when I tell them that I'm taking precautions, that it's not like it appears in the media, they are generally reassured," he said.

So far, 1,427 people have died among 2,615 known cases in West Africa since Ebola was identified in March, according to figures released by the World Health Organisation on Friday.

However, the UN agency, which has faced criticism that it moved too slowly to contain the outbreak, said that many cases had probably gone unreported because families hide patients, fearing high fatality rates and the stigma that a positive diagnosis may bring.

People in Sierra Leone caught hiding an Ebola patient face up to two years' jail under a law passed on Friday.

Despite initial assertions that the virus had been contained, Ebola cases and deaths have shot up in recent months.

"We think six to nine months is a reasonable estimate," the WHO's Keiji Fukuda said during a visit to Liberia, speaking of the time the agency now believes will be required to halt the epidemic.

Additional reporting by Reuters, Associated Press