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Coronavirus Hits South Africa – Can We Handle It?

The moment we have all been dreading ever since COVID-19 started to take hold around the world is here. The first case of the coronavirus has been detected in Kwa-Zulu Natal.

A 38-year-old man, who had recently visited Italy with his wife, is the first South African inside the country to have tested positive for the virus plaguing tens of thousands of people around the world. He, along with the doctor to first treat him, has been treated in isolation until his contraction of the virus could be validated.

Health Minister Zweli Mkhize said that the man and his wife, who have two children, are part of a group of 10 people that returned from Italy on 1 March. As a result, a tracer team has been sent to the province in order to detect any other cases of the virus, although the man’s prudent decision to seek treatment in self-isolation significantly reduces the chances of an outbreak.

South African President, Cyril Ramaphosa urged his people not to panic and to seek medical advice immediately if they experience any of the symptoms.

To find out more about the Coronavirus, read our guide to familiarize yourself with details on the symptoms and how to lower your risk of getting infected.

“It will have a huge impact on a number of things… travel… our economy,” Ramaphosa told Eyewitness News. “It is already showing signs of a negative impact on tourism.”

“The effect will be big. South Africans will need to be prepared.”


So is South Africa prepared to deal with a potential outbreak of this global pandemic?

It is a nuanced question with a nuanced answer.

South Africa has the most developed economy on the African continent. However, unlike other nations in the Northern and Western parts of the continent that have recently been forced to create some semblance of emergency healthcare infrastructure to combat a far more deadly disease, Ebola, South Africa has remained isolated from those outbreaks and is not nearly as susceptible to diseases that have come from other parts of the world – solely because of it’s geographic location.

Nonetheless, its private healthcare institutions are head and shoulders above the rest of the African continent. The operative word there is private. Due to the legacy of apartheid in South Africa, state healthcare institutions, once highly respected, only had the capacity to treat the country’s minority white population. Since the collapse of Apartheid in 1994, these healthcare facilities were opened to the entire population, but ineffectively. What little infrastructure did exist has largely decayed and the only state hospitals that continue to function effectively at all are academic hospitals such as Groote Schuur in Cape Town or the Steve Biko Academic Hospital in Pretoria.

And, in terms of the everyday living conditions of most South Africans, the state of tightly packed impoverished neighbourhoods and townships leaves a lot to be desired in terms of clean living conditions. For example, functional running toilets are a luxury to many and clean water is a privilege that many don’t enjoy. Along with this, South Africa has largely been one of the worst affected countries with regards to the still-ongoing HIV crisis. More than 7 million South Africans live with HIV, and the Coronavirus preys on those with preexisting conditions and weakened immune systems. So if the virus does take hold, it could decimate large portions of the population and the low fatality rate in other countries is unlikely to be the case.

With that said, the county’s healthcare department made fairly light work of containing the listeriosis outbreak of 2017/18, which was transmitted through food products and disproportionately affected the poor. There were 1,060 confirmed cases of listeriosis over roughly 8 months, which led to 216 deaths. That’s a fatality rate of over 20%, which is incredibly high. However, the health department does deserve credit for the way that they spread awareness around the country, prompting people not to buy the foods (predominantly polony) through which the disease had been transmitted.

The lesson to learn from the listeriosis outbreak is this: while the country lacks the capacity to treat a widespread outbreak, it certainly is capable of spreading awareness about the disease. And, should people adequately isolate themselves if they experience symptoms, like the first patient has, it is possible that they won’t need large healthcare capacity. A proactive approach to COVID-19 is unquestionably the most effective way of containing it and we know that in places like China and America, the governments’ failures to put their citizens on red alert and to educate them about the disease has been the most catastrophic error. Right now, it’s down to South Africa’s leaders and, as far as President Ramaphosa is concerned, it appears that he is committed to being open about the unfolding of events and responding publicly as fast as possible.
Or, like China and America, he might have kept quiet about other cases – although there is no evidence to suggest that. If that is the case, however, we’re in trouble…


This is the 26th confirmed case of coronavirus on the African continent, with 17 in Algeria (16 of which are from the same family), four in Senegal, two in Egypt and one each in Morocco, Tunisia and Nigeria.

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