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Jakarta Post

‘It was very quiet’: Team members recall Wuhan evacuation mission

  • Dian Septiari
    Dian Septiari

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Fri, February 21, 2020   /   07:02 am
‘It was very quiet’: Team members recall Wuhan evacuation mission Indonesian citizens evacuated from Wuhan in Hubei province, China, exercise with military personnel at an air base in Ranai, Natuna, Riau Islands, on Feb. 6. According to data from the Ministry of Health, the 238 Indonesian citizens who underwent the coronavirus observation process were in good health, with none of them showing symptoms of infection, such as fever, cough or a runny nose. (Antara/M Risyal Hidayat)

It was on Friday evening, Jan 31, when the Health Ministry's crisis center head Budi Sylvana received the order to join a rescue team to be dispatched to China’s coronavirus-hit Hubei province, just as he was leaving office that day.

He said that, before he got the order, he had heard the announcement by Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi about the evacuation of some 245 Indonesian nationals from Wuhan to be conducted within 24 hours but had not expected to be directly involved.

“I knew the whole system was already in place, so I was relaxed. I did not think I was going to be assigned to go to Wuhan, because we were only responsible for preparing the evacuation needs. At the last minute before I was going home, the Health Minister ordered us to go. As a human being and someone who understood the nature of the virus, I was really shocked,” he said at a welcoming event in Jakarta on Tuesday.

Budi was among several officials on the team tasked with repatriating Indonesian nationals and one foreign spouse of an Indonesian citizen from Wuhan, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, as well as other cities in Hubei province, in early February.

They all had to undergo a 14-day quarantine in Natuna from Feb. 2 to Feb. 15, and all have been declared free of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19).

The evacuation team consisted of 42 people, including nine cabin crew members, a pilot, a copilot and representatives of the Foreign Ministry, the Health Ministry and the Indonesian Military (TNI).

Unlike Budi, Tony Wibawa from the Foreign Ministry’s directorate of citizen protection said he had worked on a plan for the evacuation since Jan. 23, when the Chinese government announced a lockdown in Wuhan.

Since then, he said, the directorate had worked with the Indonesian Embassy in Beijing to collect data on citizens in Wuhan.

“So, to a certain extent, we already had a plan once we received the order for the evacuation,” he said.

On Jan 30, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo ordered the immediate evacuation of all Indonesian citizens.

On the ground, a so-called “team of five” consisting of embassy officials in Beijing was tasked with going to Wuhan to prepare the evacuation.

One of the team members, Arianto Surojo, said the team went to Changsha on the morning of Jan. 31 and traveled to Wuhan by car.

“After arriving in Wuhan, we immediately coordinated with the students, and that night we got the landing permit for the plane the next day,” he said.

The biggest challenge was the fact that the students were widely dispersed, with some located as far as 500 kilometers from Wuhan.

“We had to gather them all at the airport in the evening before leaving at night,” he said.

He said the whole process was very fast because of the negotiations conducted at all levels, from the Foreign Minister to the director level as well as from the ambassador's office in Beijing and with the foreign affairs office at the provincial level.

“We were facing an abnormal situation and all of us needed to get permits, including a landing permit and flight clearance, while facing the lockdown situation on the ground,” he said.

Retno said she had barely got any sleep for at least two nights before and during the evacuation, starting on Jan. 31 when the advance team went to Wuhan.

“I get goose bumps just thinking about it now. When the team reached the border, I asked Ari how much further [before reaching Wuhan], and also when they finally met with the citizens in Wuhan. I called them to give them some encouragement, because they had to be fit for the evacuation,” she said.

Meanwhile, two days before the evacuation, Batik Air captain Destyo Usodo was notified about the assignment, and he said he was very hesitant.

“But I was reassured that all the mitigation and hazard identification had been assessed and that we already had a mitigation plan. I was also told that we would only bring the healthy citizens home, and that made me more confident,” he said.

The plane took off from Soekarno-Hatta International Airport in Tangerang, Banten, on Feb. 1 at approximately 1:10 p.m. Destyo said he had been in close communication with the mission controls of Batik Air and the Indonesian Air Force.

“When I landed at Wuhan Tianhe International Airport, it was very quiet, even though the lights were all on, there was no activity in sight,” he said, adding that the only other aircraft was one from Air India, which landed 10 minutes after Batik Air for the Indian evacuation mission.

In the end, the plane only carried 238 Indonesians and one foreign national home, as four people refused to be evacuated, while three others had high fever at the time of departure.

“When we [finally] entered [Indonesian airspace], I welcomed all Indonesian citizens back to Indonesia, our beloved country,” the captain said.