SA seems unfazed as coronavirus spreads

A South African worker at China Mall Johannesburg wears a mask as a precautionary measure. Picture: Rosetta Msimango
A South African worker at China Mall Johannesburg wears a mask as a precautionary measure. Picture: Rosetta Msimango

Despite unfounded rumours circulating on social media platforms and chat groups about the possibillity of contracting coronavirus at Chinese retail outlets, business at the cut-price malls does not seem to have been affected.

Since the outbreak of the epidemic, which has thus far killed 908 people and infected nearly 40 171 people, mostly in China – fearmongers have been warning South Africans about the risks of shopping at the ubitious Chinese malls around the country.

They have even pointed to the prevalance of Chinese people wearing masks at these malls as evidence.

The chairperson of the Gauteng Chinese Association, Erwin Pon said that the wholesalers were “not yet” affected “because people like hawkers who are not Chinese continue to buy because they are dependent on Chinese businesses”.

But, he said, things could change as shelves began to empty – “unless all the factories that were recently shut down open soon and flights that transport goods resume”.

Pon said the virus outbreak was only affecting Chinese-owned restaurants and smaller shops around Gauteng.

“Some restaurants in places like Cyrildene are not seeing as many non-Chinese patrons coming in as before the outbreak,” he said.

On the issue of face masks he said that even before the coronavirus outbreak it was not unusual to see shopkeepers wearing masks in eastern parts of Asia.

“Here in South Africa you will see it often and not because of coronavirus,” he said.

In Johanneburg thousands still flocked to a Chinese mall centre where some shopkeepers were wearing masks and went about their business as usual.

One customer had something to say though, albeit as a joke, as a Chinese man inside one of the stores walked to him offering his assistance.

“Why are you wearing a mask now? You’re making me worried,” the customer said.

The Chinese man either seemed confused or found it hard to understand what the customer was saying until he mentioned the word “corona”.

It was then that the Chinese vendor exclaimed: “Oooh. No, no, no … no corona here, no corona.”

How to protect yourself from infection


  • Avoid contact with sick people.
  • Avoid animals – alive or dead – animal markets and products that come from animals (such as uncooked meat).
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water, for at least 20 seconds. Use an alcohol-based hand sanitiser if soap and water are not available.
  • Older adults and travellers with underlying health issues may be at risk for more severe diseases and should discuss travel to Wuhan with their healthcare provider. If you travelled to Hubei province in China, including Wuhan, in the last 14 days and feel sick with fever, cough, or have difficulty breathing, you should:
  • Seek medical treatment right away. Before you go to see a doctor or to the emergency room, call ahead and tell them about your recent trip and your symptoms.
  • Avoid contact with others.
  • Do not travel while sick.
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or your sleeve – not your hands – when coughing or sneezing.

Doctors and other healthcare providers should obtain a detailed travel history of patients who have a fever and respiratory symptoms.

If you have these symptoms, you were in Wuhan on or after December 1 2019 and you can feel the onset of the illness within two weeks of leaving, please notify the local infection control personnel and your local health department immediately. – Department of health

The customer’s female companion pulled him away as she said: “Leave him alone, maybe he is worried he might get corona and hence the mask.”

Very few Chinese nationals and shopkeepers or other workers at Dragon City Mall in Fordsburg, Johannesburg, were spotted wearing masks. Some wore them but the masks were pulled down below the nose and mouth, covering only their chins.

A Zimbabwean man sitting outside the shop where he works said he was wearing the mask for the dust. His colleague, contradicted him and said they were given them to wear by their boss earlier this week.

Other Chinese shopkeepers would not comment on coronavirus or why they were – or were not – wearing masks. Some walked away without commenting and only two gave similar assurances: “No corona here.”

For shoppers, coronavirus appeared to be the last thing on their minds. In fact, while some shopkeepers and other workers were taking precautionary measures by wearing masks, it was just another day of shopping and the usual hustle and bustle at the mall.

Not even the wet weather, which left large parts of the packed parking lot almost flooded, deterred shoppers even though motorists appeared frustrated from driving around in circles looking for parking.

A man, who identified himself only as Marumo, said he had travelled all the way from the Free State for his usual fortnight shopping in Johannesburg, and at Chinese malls in particular.

“Yes, I have heard about coronavirus but does it mean I must stay home and not come here to stock up? I am a hawker, I have orders already and I cannot be afraid of coming to Chinese shops because of the virus that is killing people in China … I have a family to feed,” Marumo said.

“I will be here again to buy in the next week or two. I expect the government to ensure that corona is kept away from our country … Just like other countries, the government must keep those with the virus away from the public.”

What we know about the virus

How dangerous is the virus?

The coronavirus family includes the common cold and more serious diseases such as the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) and the Middle East respiratory syndrome.

Many of those who have died after being infected by the new virus had pre-existing medical conditions or were elderly people with weakened immune systems.

The coronavirus infections have a wide range of symptoms, including fever, a cough and breathing difficulties.

Statistics from China show that about 2% of people infected with the new virus have died, suggesting that it may be deadlier than seasonal flu, but less deadly than Sars, which killed about 10% of those who were infected.

How is it transmitted and how can it be prevented?

The virus can be transmitted via droplets of saliva when an infected person breathes out, coughs or sneezes.

It can also spread through contaminated surfaces such as door handles and staircase handrails.

Experts have said it is more easily transmitted than the Sars virus. The incubation period is up to 14 days. Infected people may infect others before the symptoms appear.

The World Health Organisation recommends that people should frequently wash their hands, and cover their mouths and noses when sneezing or coughing. They should also try to avoid close contact with those who are sick.

Do face masks help?

“We recommend the use of masks for people who have symptoms ... because the virus transmits through droplets,” said medical expert Sylvie Briand.

But they do not guarantee protection against infection.

“For people who don’t have symptoms, the mask is not useful,” Briand said.

I s there any treatment?

There is no vaccine yet. Chinese scientists were able to identify the genetic sequence of the new coronavirus and shared it publicly. Scientists in Australia have developed a lab-grown version of the virus, a step towards creating a vaccine.

Pharmaceutical firms around the globe expect to begin testing experimental vaccines on humans in about three months.

Where has it spread?

A Reuters tally based on official statements shows that about 99% of the more than 20 000 known cases have been reported in mainland China. Nearly 230 cases have been reported in about 27 other countries and regions.

Where did the virus come from?

It is believed to have originated in a food market in Wuhan that was illegally selling wildlife. Experts think it may have originated in bats and then infected humans. – Reuters

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