Covid-19: How it all started, on that fateful day in March

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New normal, nurse Bongiwe Mvelase from the Church of Scotland Hospital in Tugela Ferry, KwaZulu-Natal, takes swab samples to send off for testing
New normal, nurse Bongiwe Mvelase from the Church of Scotland Hospital in Tugela Ferry, KwaZulu-Natal, takes swab samples to send off for testing


This year will go down as one of the worst for most South Africans as Covid-19 wreaked havoc in the country. Vuyo Mkize takes us back to the start of it all.

March 5 2020 is a day most South Africans aren’t likely to forget for a long time to come.

While the country had collectively watched with bated breath as cases of the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2), which was first reported in the fish markets of Wuhan, China, in December last year, spread across one territory after the next across the globe, in came the news that would soon grind the country to a halt.

“Fellow South Africans, this morning, Thursday March 5, the National Institute for Communicable Diseases has confirmed that a suspected case of Covid-19 has tested positive. The patient is a 38-year-old male who travelled to Italy with his wife. They were a part of a group of 10 people and they arrived back in South Africa on March 1,” Health Minister Zweli Mkhize said.

That day would mark the beginning of a deluge of cumulative confirmed cases – still rising by the day – and deaths related to a tiny spiked virus invisible to the naked eye.

And not a step out of beat would be the anxiety and panic that ensued.

Fear gripped the tight-knit community of Hilton in KwaZulu-Natal, where “patient zero” resided with his family, as more from the group tested positive with each passing day.

After two children and a parent tested positive for Covid-19, private school Cowan House in Hilton closed its doors.

Coinciding with the news of the arrival of the pandemic on local shores would be the arrival of the first tranche of students from the Capricorn FET College in Limpopo who had been completing a construction course in Henan, China.

The next big effort would be the repatriation of the 184 nationals in Wuhan to South Africa following heartening pleas from the young professionals working in the province, who had been stuck in the country going through harsh lockdowns to stem their own tide of the outbreak.


March 27

The nation begins its first 21-day lockdown as announced by President Cyril Ramaphosa on Monday, March 23.

At that point, the cases of the virus were spreading like wildfire – increasing sixfold in just eight days, from 61 to 402.

“Without decisive action, the number of people infected will rapidly increase from a few hundred to tens of thousands, and within a few weeks to hundreds of thousands,” he had said.

Earlier that month, on March 15, Ramaphosa declared a national state of disaster, which paved the way for the implementation of a number of regulations under the Disaster Management Act, bringing on various restrictions on mass movement and gatherings, all in an effort to curb the further spread of the virus.

The national coronavirus command council is formed around this time (March 17).

As part of the national lockdown, nonessential activities were suspended and South Africans were under government instruction to stay at home as much as possible, bar emergency cases, all in an effort to fundamentally disrupt the chain of transmission.

Alcohol and tobacco sales are also deemed nonessential and banned during the period, to the frustration of many.

The first two deaths caused by Covid-19 are recorded in the Western Cape, and the country tips the first 1 000 confirmed cases mark.


April 1

The National Health Laboratory Service (NHLS) announces it has procured 60 vans, in addition to the seven already deployed in provinces, to help the testing effort.

Also in April, Netcare St Augustine’s Hospital in Durban is shut down following an outbreak that would go on to infect a total of 135 patients and staff.

April 9

Ramaphosa extends the 21-day lockdown for another two weeks, saying: “If we end the lockdown too soon or too abruptly, we risk a massive and uncontrollable resurgence of the disease.”

April 10

Mkhize officially recommends the widespread use of cloth masks for the public and that medical masks be used by healthcare workers.

April 21

Ramaphosa announces a R500 billion rescue package to aid the economic sector, which has started floundering due to the pandemic and subsequent lockdown, which leads to trade being significantly limited.

April 27

A delegation of 217 Cuban Medical Brigade arrive in the country, bringing infectious disease specialists to support the local effort to deal with the quickly spreading virus.


The tobacco sector begins its battle with government over the cigarette ban, with the Fair-Trade Independent Tobacco Association filing an application in the Pretoria High Court to set aside the ban, initially instated at the beginning of lockdown and unchanged even as the country moved to lockdown level 4. Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma opposes the court action and defends government’s prohibition of tobacco products, citing various studies showing the severity of Covid-19 outcomes being greater in smokers, and saying that the ban was in place to try to alleviate the pressure on health facilities and protect the lives of smokers themselves.

The cigarette ban would become the most contested and controversial of the lockdown restrictions, as international company British American Tobacco also entered the fray with its own legal action.

May 28

The NHLS concedes to various reports citing concerns of experts and health workers over delays in getting test results back to patients, stating that, at that point, there were 96 480 specimens that had not been processed.

At that point, reports from healthcare workers are that it can take up to 10 days to get tests back to patients – making the entire purpose of testing as a means to aid contact tracing null and void as, by the time the tests come back, the patient has probably recovered and their contacts have already gone on to unknowingly infect others.

First line of defence Healthcare workers have been at the forefront of the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic

The NHLS reported to Parliament that it would be doing targeted testing – prioritising high-risk individuals and the critical frontline healthcare workers.


July 12

Ramaphosa addresses the nation, saying that the anticipated surge has arrived and, along with a reinstated alcohol ban, a new curfew of 9pm to 4am is introduced. This as, on July 9, South Africa recorded its highest daily infection increase.

A reduction in the isolation period of those tested positive for Covid-19 is also announced, from 14 days to 10.

July 23

Ramaphosa announces the reclosure of public schools for four weeks from July 27 to August 24.


August 15

The first sign of a real reprieve from the pandemic arrives as Ramaphosa confirms that the country will move to the risk-adjusted lockdown level 2.

But the economy has taken a serious knock and the effects of the initial six months under lockdown are glaringly apparent.


The continued decline in cases observed prompts a further lowering of the lockdown to level 1.


The early rumblings of a second wave take hold, and Mkhize sounds the alarm after the daily case figure breaches 3 000 on November 20 – more than half of these are in the Eastern Cape (54.4%).


December 3

Ramaphosa addresses the nation again, noting the resurgence in the Eastern Cape and the Western Cape. Tighter restrictions are imposed for Nelson Bay Metropolitan Municipality.

December 6

Mkhize makes an urgent announcement identifying the matric Rage gatherings as superspreader events after the Ballito instalment of the festival is linked to hundreds of new infections. He urges those who attended the events to quarantine themselves for 10 days.

December 9

Mkhize officially announces the country is experiencing a second wave. For the first time, the brunt of the infections is being felt in the 15- to 19-year-old age group. Furthermore, the country breaches 6 000 new daily infections.

December 14

Ramaphosa takes to the podium again, announcing the tightening of restrictions countrywide in light of the second wave and anticipated mass movement of people between provinces over the festive period.

He remarks on the country’s effort to join the World Health Organisation’s Covid-19 Global Vaccine Access Facility – Covax – that pools resources for equitable access to the vaccines being developed, when they become available.

The Solidarity Fund announces it has committed $19.2 million (R284.7 million) to secure the country’s participation in the facility and vaccines for 10% of the population. The first recipients of the vaccine will most likely be healthcare workers and those in high-risk groups, such as the elderly.

To date, more than 38 000 local healthcare workers in the public sector have tested positive for Covid-19, nearly 5 000 have been admitted to hospital and 391 have died.

As a final call to South Africans in his address before the festive season, Ramaphosa leaves locals with this sobering statement to mull over: “This period will require each of us to do things differently to previous years, because this year is unlike any other we have lived through before. It will require us to give up some short-lived pleasures to protect ourselves and others, and to ensure that we can enjoy such times together in future years.”

And there cannot be any truer statement to sum up a sobering, scary, exhausting and life-threatening year.


Vuyo Mkize 

Health Journalist

+27 11 713 9001
69 Kingsway Rd, Auckland Park
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