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Coronavirus: Don’t panic – but South Africa needs to be prepared

A Chinese passenger that just arrived on the last bullet train from Wuhan to Beijing is checked for a fever by a health worker at a Beijing railway station on January 23, 2020 in Beijing, China. (Photo: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

As I flew back from Johannesburg to Cape Town yesterday, I saw two passengers next to me wearing face masks. I felt a little anxious and ‘underdressed’ and then sat back to think about it. As a clinical virologist, I asked myself, was I setting a good example travelling regularly on public transport without due care for myself?

The recent emergence of the new coronavirus (Covid-19) in China comes as no surprise to infectious disease specialists, who have warned of the inevitability of this occurrence for decades. Many viral infections, such as influenza, Ebola, rabies and SARS are transmitted to humans from animals, and our increasing exposure to animals over time adds to the risk of more animal-to-human transmissions.

The current Covid-19 outbreak in China is a serious concern for the entire world, despite the epidemic being almost exclusively in China, with relatively limited spread elsewhere.

The WHO is an inherently conservative body that does not declare outbreaks a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC),” without reason. Its expert committees deliberated and declared the Covid-19 outbreak to be a PHEIC at the end of January.

Today’s figures show that there are 75,725 identified cases in the world, of which 98.5% are in mainland China. Of the 1,149 identified cases outside China, about half were identified on a single cruise liner, the Diamond Princess. Only one case has been confirmed in Africa, that being in Cairo, Egypt, and about 500 other confirmed cases are scattered across the globe. There have been 2150 deaths recorded, almost all in China. The map below gives a visual description of the spread, showing the very limited number of cases outside of China.

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