Fears, rumours stalk flights to Ebola-affected countries as airlines pull out, borders shut

PARIS (AFP) - Chinese people fleeing Ebola, angry Africans, understaffed flight crew, rumours and fears: the Air France flight from Freetown to Paris seemed to encapsulate the global panic in the face of the Ebola outbreak.

Anecdotes 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? In any case, as the story goes, passengers asked to move seats.

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

Air France is one of the few airlines still flying to affected countries, as nations close their borders for fear of the outbreak that has claimed around 1,350 lives.

No one wore masks on the 20-minute hop between Freetown and Conakry (180km), nor the long-haul flight to Paris that landed early on Thursday morning. But the nervousness was palpable, even if the atmosphere was calm.

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

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

"Lots of Chinese are leaving. If they stay, they might die," he added. "We hope that Europe and the United States will soon find a good cure to solve the (Ebola) problem."

Until then, the couple is taking refuge with their son in southern China.

Another passenger, Mr Trevor Simumba, 44, told AFP that he had had to make a round trip of thousands of kilometres, as airlines change schedules and nervous countries close borders.

South Africa on Thursday issued a ban on non-citizens travelling from Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, which it labelled "high-risk countries".

Kenya has also closed its borders to travellers from those three countries.

Mr 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 flights, Mr Simumba was forced to take an Air France flight in and out of Europe 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, 27-year-old Mr Francois Gatineau, was altogether more sanguine 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 man, who is a finance director for a shipping company.

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

He even had a visit from his girlfriend. "We stayed in Freetown and the surrounding beaches. We didn't go in-country. She's been back for a month and everything's fine. There's no problem."

The authorities are grateful to companies like Air France who have kept flying to Ebola-hit countries, even though they are struggling to find staff willing to operate the flights.

"I would like to encourage Air France and Brussels Airlines to continue their operations in Sierra Leone," said Mr Alimany Bangura, a top official at the Economy Ministry in Freetown.

"They give confidence back and prove that the situation (of the epidemic) is under control.

"They are our last hope."

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