It’s a matter of when – and not if – before coronavirus reaches our shores: Zweli Mkhize

Health Minister Zweli Mkhize speaks at a news conference in Johannesburg on Sunday. Picture: Denis Farrell / AP Photo
Health Minister Zweli Mkhize speaks at a news conference in Johannesburg on Sunday. Picture: Denis Farrell / AP Photo

While South Africa’s health system “is ready and well equipped” to deal with the coronavirus outbreak, it is only a matter of time before the virus hits our shores, Health Minister Zweli Mkhize announced on Wednesday morning.

Mkhize, briefing the portfolio committee on health in Parliament, said although there were so far no cases of the virus in the country, the manner in which the virus was spreading meant that it was a matter of when – and not if – South Africa would record its first case.

He made the announcement while giving an update on the status of his department’s response to the outbreak, as well as the state of readiness in the event that it reaches the country.

He said given the spreading patterns of the virus, it was sure to hit South Africa’s shores “soon enough”.

“What we need to be alert to is that slowly this virus is settling in every country. The number of affected countries today is 81 and in a few months that number will probably touch every country,” said Mkhize.

At the onset of such an occurrence, the country would have to shift strategies and engage in a much longer battle of resilience to deal with the situation.

Mkhize said for now his department had increased its capabilities with thermal screening equipment being rolled out at all major ports of entry.

“We have supplied officials working at entry ports with protective clothing, which includes masks and gloves. Disinfectants have been applied on walls, floors and other surfaces at the entry points.”

Mkhize said that although there was a flurry of fake news being circulated claiming that cases of the virus had already been detected in the country, this information “is not true”, adding that the only South Africans who had tested positive for the virus were those who worked on board the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan.

“The two are being treated in the port of Yokohama in Japan. Although the other 10 South African crew members on board have not tested positive, they are under quarantine,” said Mkhize.

A traveller wears a mask at Johannesburg’s OR Tambo International Airport Picture: Denis Farrell / AP Photo

The coronavirus has spread throughout the world since the first cases were detected in central China in December.

More than 3 200 people have died globally and more than 92 000 have been infected.

The World Health Organisation has declared the outbreak a public health emergency of international concern.

Mkhize said the worrying factor was that Africa had already recorded seven cases of the virus; two in Egypt, and one each in Senegal, Nigeria, Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria.

He said that while the rest of the world was closing its borders to China, four of the seven cases recorded in Africa had been come from Italy.

More than 2 500 cases had been reported in Italy, with 79 deaths, the highest mortality rate from the disease of any of the affected countries.

Mkhize assured parliamentarians that his department was ready to fight the virus.

“Our level of readiness is that we can treat any patient who comes into the country and we have all the provinces ready to combat the virus.”

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