On 5 March 2020 health officials confirmed South Africa’s first case of the COVID-19 type coronavirus which is threatening a global pandemic. On 9 March 2020, authorities confirmed four more cases, bringing the total confirmed cases to seven.
The virus was first detected in Wuhan, China, at the end of December 2019 but has subsequently infected over 111 000 people in at least 97 countries, with over 3 800 fatalities. While these figures were the best estimates at the time of writing, the real figures are likely to be higher. The respiratory disease is highly viral and has a fatality rate of between 2.3% and 3.4%, the latter figure being the latest World Health Organisation (WHO) estimate.
The first detected case in South Africa was an individual in Durban who contracted the disease while on a recent holiday in Italy. The man returned to South Africa on 3 March 2020. The other two detected cases have involved individuals who were also on the Italian trip with the first patient. Italy, the second-worst affected country by the coronavirus after China, introduced nationwide emergency measures after its death toll jumped from 366 to 463 on 9 March.
Thus far, South African health officials have been largely commended for the manner in which they have addressed the arrival of COVID-19 in the country. Both the Department of Health and the National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD) have responded rapidly, identifying possible infections, ensuring testing and quarantining. Additional temperature checks have been in place at South Africa’s entrance points for several weeks; however, given the two-week incubation period of the virus, these will be of limited success.
In many ways, South Africa has been fortunate that the disease took so long to reach the country as the epidemic had already spread throughout most of Asia, Europe, and North America. This is likely due to the fact that South Africa has comparatively fewer international travel links as other affected country’s and that there is limited travel and connectivity between Wuhan and South Africa, limiting the speed at which the virus would spread to South Africa.
However, there are concerns over whether South Africa will be able to handle the COVID-19 outbreak if, or more likely when, it begins in earnest. South Africa has some natural advantages in limiting the spread of the disease so far. Fewer South African’s travel abroad compared with European states and those that do tend to be the upper and middle classes which are already somewhat self-isolating using private vehicles instead of public transport and are more likely to be able to afford to seek medical assistance and take time off work when sick. These factors will, and likely have slowed the spread of the disease in the country.
However, South Africa lacks sufficient health infrastructure, and public medical facilities and services are already under strain due to the country’s other health challenges such as tuberculosis (TB) and HIV/Aids. Should infections rise into the hundreds or even thousands, it is unclear whether or not the country’s hospitals will be able to handle the increased pressure. Furthermore, once the disease begins to be more widespread, given the aforementioned high rates of TB and HIV/Aids, the mortality rate in South Africa will potentially be higher than recorded elsewhere.
Accordingly, the country’s best strategies are to delay, limit, and slow the spread of the disease so that the national health system can better manage the situation. Thus far officials have been fairly effective in achieving this. Not only were the first COVID-19 patient’s contacts and travel companions identified and tested, schools that may have had secondary or even tertiary exposure to the disease were temporarily closed as a precaution. However, such limiting measures are dependent on the ability to conduct widespread testing, and it is unclear whether South Africa has sufficient testing kits to handle a wider outbreak. The NICD is currently conducting tests on reported cases, and private sector players have also begun offering tests at R1 200.
However, given the global scale of the outbreak, there are severe constraints on the availability of testing kits and other essential medical supplies such as masks and disinfectants. The shortage is simultaneously being driven by a surge in demand for the supplies and broader global supply chain limitations due to quarantines and factory shutdowns in China.
This reduction in China’s production, as well as reduced economic activity in other severely impacted states such as Italy, Iran and South Korea, has resulted in a slowdown of the global economy, threatening a global recession. This is arguably as big a concern for South Africa as the outbreak itself.
Statistics South Africa (StatsSA) announced on 3 March 2020 that South Africa had once again slid into a recession following a 0.8% contraction in the last financial quarter. This was before the country’s economy began to feel the impact of the reduced demand for natural resources by China’s manufacturing sector and the severe contraction in global tourism as quarantines, travel restrictions, and fear of travel began to take effect. South Africa’s economic growth is heavily dependent on inbound tourism and Chinese demand. A wider global economic contraction would have further knock-on effects on South Africa’s economy. The threat of a global pandemic and economic recession has resulted in a devaluation of emerging market economies, particularly the Rand. While this could be a boon for exports, any advantage from a weaker Rand will be dependent on the continued global demand.
Furthermore, the weakening currency will increase the cost of imports and offset much of the benefit from the falling oil prices. This is of particular concern as other countries have witnessed panic buying relating to increasing COVID-19 infections and fears of quarantine. Should the disease spread further in South Africa, similar behaviour is likely leading to a shortage of essential consumer goods. This, combined with a weaker Rand, could have an inflationary effect on consumer goods in the country.
It is likely a matter of time before South Africa begins experiencing higher rates of COVID-19 infections. This will result in the implementations of quarantines and work stoppages. Thus far, South African health officials and disease control experts have illustrated that measures have been taken and systems put in place to address the global epidemic. However, the structural weaknesses and challenges in South Africa’s health system remain, with an associated risk of the system being overwhelmed, particularly if the disease spreads to rural areas with weaker infrastructure. Irrespective of the scale of the outbreak within its borders, South Africa will suffer from the global economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 outbreak deepening and extending the current recession.