A STAFF member checks a passenger’s body temperature at Wangjiadun metro station in Wuhan, capital of central China’s Hubei province.     Xinhua
A STAFF member checks a passenger’s body temperature at Wangjiadun metro station in Wuhan, capital of central China’s Hubei province. Xinhua

Still early days, but South Africa must prepare for the coronavirus

By Helmo Preuss Time of article published Jan 27, 2020

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JOHANNESBURG - It is too early to tell how the so-called “Wuhan flu”, a coronavirus that results in flu-like symptoms, will affect South Africa, but it is being compared to the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) pandemic in 2003 that cost the global economy billions of rand.

Sars infected more than 8000 people and killed some 800, resulting in estimates of global economic costs from disrupted trade and travel of R400 billion to R1.4 trillion.

Dawie Roodt, the chief economist of the Efficient Group, said there were three possible avenues as to how Wuhan flu could impact South Africa.

“The first is through the real economy if other countries start closing borders and so on it will affect trade and tourism. The second is through the financial markets and its impact on commodity prices and exchange rates. The third is if the virus also arrives in South Africa,” he said.

Professor Jannie Rossouw of the University of Witwatersrand’s department of economics said: “At the moment, the virus infection is limited to the northern hemisphere and will probably only reach us through international travel in a few days’ time. This gives us time to prepare, for instance, at ports of entry, to limit the spread.

“The impact in South Africa can be at two levels: first, less international travel, with fewer business people and tourists arriving in South Africa, and second, widespread illness disrupting the economy, owing to ill staff members.

“However, to assess any full impact is simply impossible at this point in time,” he said.

Kutoane Kutoane, the chief executive of state-owned Export Credit Insurance Corporation of South Africa, said: “Asian countries, especially China, have become increasingly important trading partners for South Africa. Chinese tourism has grown significantly and has become a major source of foreign exchange income for the country.

“With the coronavirus outbreak, and the increasing global worries about the potential spread, one could see a dramatic drop in Chinese visitors to South Africa, as well as a decline in trade between the two countries, which will not bode well for our struggling economy.”

South Africa’s health authorities have increased their surveillance of travellers arriving from countries reporting cases of Wuhan flu, by using thermal scanners at airports. Cases have been reported in Japan, Thailand, South Korea and the US, but so far, none in Africa.

The 3 percent mortality rate among cases confirmed so far is a cause for concern, as that is similar to the Spanish influenza pandemic in 1918, which killed 3 to 5percent of the world’s population and had a major impact in South Africa.

The true mortality rate of Wuhan flu will become better known in the coming weeks and public-health measures will adjust accordingly, using lessons learned from Sars and Mers - a still-deadlier cousin discovered in 2012 in Saudi Arabia that spreads only through close contact - and the Ebola outbreaks in West Africa and Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Wuhan flu is not yet a global travel and tourism crisis, but the Global Tourism Resilience and Crisis Management Center said it was monitoring the situation, as was the World Health Organisation, which has, so far, not designated the coronavirus a global health issue.


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