JOHANNESBURG – The new coronavirus has been slow to spread in Africa but cases are increasing on the continent, with South Africa reporting 17 confirmed infections Thursday, including its first transmitted locally.
Across Africa, 12 of the continent's 54 countries have registered COVID-19 cases, the most recent being Ivory Coast announcing one case.
Algeria's president ordered all schools closed immediately on Thursday after the North African country saw its first death from the virus. Algeria has 25 cases so far.
South Africa reported its first case a week ago. Since then, the number of people there to test positive for the virus has crept up. The country's health minister announced four more Thursday, including a man who became ill after contact in South Africa with a Chinese businessman.
Previously, all the cases in the country involved people who returned to South Africa after traveling in Europe.
The new coronavirus spreading locally worries South Africa, other African countries and health experts who say many of Africa's national health systems are weak. With a relatively low number of cases across the continent — fewer than 140 and almost all of them imported — the current strategy is to try to contain the virus.
The vast majority of people recover from the new virus. The number of COVID-19 cases worldwide has surpassed 120,000, and 60,000 people have already recovered. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover.
Africa's hospitals may not be adequately prepared to care for large numbers of people who may need intensive care and ventilators, say health experts.
“It will have a huge impact on a number of things ... travel ... our economy. It is already showing signs of a negative impact on tourism,” South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said after the first case was confirmed.
A military plane is currently on a mission to repatriate some 121 South African students who were stranded in the Chinese city of Wuhan, the epicenter of the global virus pandemic. The plane is expected to return to South Africa on Friday.
The return of the students to South Africa is so sensitive that officials have not yet revealed where the plane will land or where the students and military personnel will immediately be put into quarantine.
South African medical authorities have assured the public that effective measures are being taken to prepare for COVID-19. South Africa and Senegal were the first two countries in sub-Saharan Africa to have laboratories to test for the new virus.
Airports and hospitals in South Africa are screening people for signs of the disease.
“We want to make sure that there is a heightened awareness and we don't inadvertently allow anyone into our facility who's perhaps come into contact with someone who's been to a COVID-19 area or themselves are not well,” said Richard Friedland, CEO of the Netcare Group of hospitals, when showing the screening and isolation units that have been prepared for possible patients in Johannesburg's Milpark Netcare Hospital.
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