South Africa virus cases fast rising, jump to 116

By: AFP      Published: 03:54 PM, 18 Mar, 2020
South Africa virus cases fast rising, jump to 116
An employee of a South African company specialised in sanitisation wears a full protective suit while at the Wanderers taxi rank in Johannesburg. AFP

South Africa on Wednesday recorded its highest 24-hour increase in coronavirus infections, with 31 new cases taking the country's tally up to 116, government announced.

Africa's most industrialised economy has the highest toll in sub-Saharan Africa and the second highest on the continent after Egypt, which has recorded 196 cases.

The country's first coronavirus infection, confirmed on March 5, was detected in a man who had arrived from Italy -- the new centre of a pandemic that has infected more than 200,000 people worldwide and killed more than 8,000. "As of this morning, 18 March 2020, South Africa now has 116 confirmed cases of COVID-19," Health Minister Zweli Mkhize said in a statement.

Of the new cases announced this week, six were children aged five or under. Most of the people who have tested positive in South Africa had travelled to highly-affected countries in Europe and the Middle East. But at least 14 internal transmissions were detected this week, raising fears the virus could spread into overcrowded townships where sanitation is poor and there is little scope for self-isolation.

"Now we are seeing transmission between people in South Africa," said Lynn Morris, a senior executive at the country's National Institute for Communicable Diseases. "What we are trying to avoid is seeing those clusters spreading into the community," she explained on local radio, adding that the "true rate of transmission" was still unknown.

President Cyril Ramaphosa declared a state of national disaster after numbers more than tripled over the weekend. "It is spreading, so it is necessary that we close ranks as we stand together," Ramaphosa told reporters after meeting with opposition political party leaders on Wednesday.

Yet he warned that the impact on the economy would be "quite devastating" and described the situation as "unprecedented". South African Airways (SAA) -- the country's debt-ridden national carrier -- cancelled 162 flights scheduled to depart this month in response to low demand for air travel.

Its subsidiary and budget airline, SA Express, announced overnight that it was suspending operations starting Wednesday until further notice. In nearby Zambia, the government on Wednesday announced the country's first two cases -- a couple that returned to Lusaka on Sunday from a 10-day holiday in France.

Sub-Saharan Africa has been several weeks behind the Middle East and Europe in the spread of the virus. Many African governments have already imposed restriction on flights and public gatherings and shuttered schools.

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