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It was inevitable that the coronavirus would reach South Africa, and medical experts say that this is the time for awareness, not panic.


senior couple with face masks


Preliminary estimates suggest that people over the age of 50 are more susceptible to severe respiratory illness such as pneumonia caused by the novel coronavirus which can also cause symptoms like fever, cough and shortness of breath.

Nancy Messonnier, Director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases says that “the data coming out of China shows that the people who are higher risk for severe disease and death are those who are older and with underlying health conditions”.  

However, it does need to be reiterated that being a 50-plusser does not automatically put you in the high-risk category.  People with chronic health conditions are likely to be more susceptible to severe disease caused by the virus.

coronavirus table





The World Health Organisation (WHO) has recently declared the Covid-19 outbreak to be a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC).  For decades,  Infectious disease specialists have warned of the inevitability of a new coronavirus, as many viral infections are transmitted from animals to humans, and there has been an ever-increasing exposure to animals over time.

According to the Worldometer information , there have been 119,375 coronavirus cases, 4,300 deaths and 66,582 recoveries from the virus (as at 11 March 2020).  There have been 13 cases in South Africa (as at 11 March 2020 ).

What is Covid-19?

Covid-19 is caused by a member of the coronavirus family that we have not encountered before and like its most closely related cousin, the SARS coronavirus, Covid-19 likely originated  from animals.  Some of those initially infected either worked or frequently shopped at the wet market in Wuhan in China. Indications are that the virus was first identified in December 2019 when it “jumped” from an animal species to humans, and thereafter spread from person to person.   “Wet markets” in China are notorious for having thousands of live, wild animals from across the globe crammed in cages in very close proximity to the market sellers and customers.  

What are the symptoms of the coronavirus?

Symptoms include coughs, fever and breathing difficulties.  The virus can cause pneumonia, and because this is viral pneumonia, antibiotics do not work.    In severe cases, organ failure has been reported.  Most of those who have died were in poor health, while those who have a strong immune system have recovered.



How does the virus get transmitted? 

China’s national health commission has confirmed human-to-human transmission, and there have been such transmissions elsewhere. 

Follow these basic steps to reduce your risk

Wash your hands well
Washing your hands with soap and water or using an alcohol-based hand rub kills viruses that could be on your hands.  Institute a handwashing rule for everyone as soon as they enter the house or retirement home.

In the UK, elderly people are being encouraged to limit their outings and social contact and should insist that visitors wash their hands upon arrival.

Keep your distance from sick people (social distancing)
Why? Because if someone coughs or sneezes, they could spray small liquid droplets from their nose or mouth, and these could contain the virus

Avoid touching eyes, nose and mouth
Hands can pick up viruses when touching surfaces. Once contaminated, your hands can transfer the virus to your eyes, nose and mouth.  The virus then enters your body and you can get sick.

Practice good respiratory hygiene
Use tissues when coughing or sneezing – then dispose of the used tissue immediately, preferably in a lined bin.

When to seek medical care
Stay at home if you feel unwell. If you have a fever, cough or difficulty in breathing and if you suspect you have COVID-19, then seek medical attention immediately.  Call first so your health care provider can direct you to the appropriate health facility. This will protect you and also help prevent the spread of viruses and other infections.

Consider the following:

  • Unless you are already infected, face masks won’t help you
  • Stock up on home supplies, medicines and resources
  • Prepare yourself and communicate your plan to your family and friends
  • Get the flu injection
  • Planning a holiday?  Consider your destination and consider the risk factor

Misinformation in the age of social media

One of the big issues of the day is battling the myths and falsehoods about the virus – which are spreading more quickly than officials can provide updates.

Dr Marvin Hsiao, Principle Pathologist and Senior Lecturer in the Division of Medical Virology and the NHLS at the University of Cape Town had this to say:   “As we are bombarded with an avalanche of information on COVID-19, it is important to have the most accurate, up to date information from the official sources. I have found the following links to be both credible and useful.”


World Economy

And to add to all of the woes, the coronavirus outbreak is plunging the world economy into its worst downturn since the global financial crisis.

Western Cape Government

The Western Cape Government has announced that they are “ready for coronavirus cases”. 

Nomafrench Mbombo, the Western Cape Provincial Minister of Health and previously Associate Professor at the Faculty of Community and Health Sciences at the University of the Western Cape, has said “We urge the public to trust our preparedness and readiness and not share fake or misleading information. We’ve created platforms where they can access official, up-to-date info and we ask the media to support the Department in assuring the public of their safety as well as guiding them on access to health services.” 

“The Department has world-class systems and facilities, which have been tried and tested in the past, and we are doing everything possible to ensure that we are fully prepared for any scenario. We realise that there are high levels of public anxiety, but we urge the public to remain calm and follow the basic guidelines.”

The Western Cape Government has shared a detailed action plan regarding how they will deal with any locals, travellers or medical professionals who show signs of the fatal illness:

  • They have a 72 hour response plan should the WC get a confirmed victim, and contact tracing teams will be engaged.
  • They will isolate patients in a suitable facility for assessment and apply infection prevention and control measures.
  • The facility will then contact the Infectious Disease Specialist/Virologist at Tygerberg or Groote Schuur Hospital.
  • If required, a test will be done and sent to the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) for analysis.
  • Thermal scanning is currently in place at Cape Town Airport. Daily briefings are also exchanged with the NICD.
  • The Provincial Health Operational Command Centre scans international arrivals. Upon identification of people showing coronavirus symptoms, they are taken to Tygerberg hospital for monitoring and isolation.


Further information

Department of Health – click here

Department of Health, Kwa-Zulu Natal – click here




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One Comment

  • Helen Gilbert says:

    The article on the Corona Virus situation in Western Cape was the best I have seen. Thank you for that.
    I am currently in the USA where the preparations are nil. They don’t have much testing equipment and have said it will only be used on American citizens when they do get it.
    Luckily I am flying back to the UK on Sunday and they have been geared up for quite a while.
    This informative article was very helpful to me as I will be returning to Cape Town on 18th April and I have bronchiectacis which puts me in the higher risk group. So should I experience the symptoms I will know where to go.

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