Coronavirus: MFA officers who flew into Wuhan to ensure no Singaporean is left behind

(From left) Ministry of Foreign Affairs officers Hsu Jing Yi, Philip Ong and Amelia Wong. ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

SINGAPORE - The mission was, in Mr Philip Ong's words, simple: Leave no Singaporean behind.

When the coronavirus outbreak seized China's Hubei province and its capital city, Wuhan, and led to a dramatic lockdown for all its residents on Jan 23, foreign governments worked quickly to get their nationals out.

Singapore's Foreign Affairs Ministry looked for volunteers from among its ranks to go into the hot zone to pick up hundreds of Singaporeans stuck there. When asked, Mr Ong, 42, did not hesitate.

Several others did too, including consular officer Hsu Jing Yi, 24, and finance services assistant director Amelia Wong, 35.

The mission: fly into Wuhan's Tianhe International Airport, make sure all Singaporeans meant to be on the flight were accounted for and bring them home safely.

Two separate missions lasted under 20 hours each, but the preparation took an intensive week or so, involving multiple government ministries such as the health, transport, national development as well as immigration and civil aviation authorities.

The last time the Ministry of Foreign Affairs launched a similar mission was in April 2015 when it evacuated Singaporeans from Nepal after a devastating earthquake.

While officers from the Singapore Embassy in Beijing laid the groundwork for the evacuation, including getting in touch with the stranded Singaporeans, the lockdown in Wuhan meant they were not able to travel into the central Chinese city, where the coronavirus originated.

"There was a lot of intricate planning. Even though on the ground, it was just two officers, but behind the scenes, there was a whole team in Singapore that was on standby, coordinating the logistics," said Ms Hsu, who was one of two foreign service officers on the first evacuation flight on Jan 30.

The flight on Scoot, a subsidiary of Singapore Airlines, brought home 92 Singaporeans, five of whom were later found to be infected with the coronavirus which causes the disease, Covid-19.

Mr Ong and Ms Wong were on a second evacuation flight on Feb 8 in which 174 Singaporeans and their family members were repatriated. A one-year-old boy and a 32-year-old man on that second flight were also infected. All those infected on the two flights have since recovered.

Mr Ong and his colleagues were the only Singaporean officials at the airport taking care of their fellow citizens, so they had to familiarise themselves with the environment beforehand. YouTube videos became a reference for the airport's layout.

Mr Philip Ong briefing Singaporeans at Wuhan's Tianhe International Airport before departure. PHOTO: MINISTRY OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS

The ability to speak Mandarin was also crucial to communicating with local airport officials, and Mr Ong's previous postings in Beijing and Shanghai and Ms Wong's stint in Guangzhou came in useful.

"The biggest challenge of this mission is overcoming one's fear," said Mr Ong, a deputy director at the ministry's diplomatic academy.

"Before the trip, there's the fear of getting the virus. And, of course, there was also the fear of us not being able to execute the mission successfully because it was really very simple. We were leaving no one behind. We wanted to make sure that every Singaporean that was listed on the manifest, we would be able to bring them back."

Ms Wong, who was on the second flight, said: "There wasn't much time to think about anything else except the mission at hand and when we finally boarded the flight, there was a huge sense of relief."

While the first flight took off without a glitch, the second was delayed for five hours as the Singaporean passengers waited for two other evacuation flights - one to the UK and one to Australia - to depart.

A doctor and a nurse also came on the second mission to help answer an assortment of health questions from the passengers.

Many were surprised that foreign service officers had flown from Singapore to pick them up.

"A lot of them expressed thanks and said 'Wow, you came all the way,'" said Ms Wong.

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