By Wendell Roelf
CAPE TOWN (Reuters) – South Africa on Thursday confirmed its first case of coronavirus, affecting a citizen who had passed through the main airport showing no symptoms on his way back from a trip to Italy.
President Cyril Ramaphosa warned that the virus would hurt travel and tourism, and have a negative impact on South Africa’s already struggling economy, but urged citizens not to panic.
“We will keep informing South Africans openly and transparently about a number of steps we will be taking because this will turn out to be a national crisis,” the president said.
“It will have a huge impact on travel, and a negative impact also on our economy. It is already showing signs of having a negative impact on our tourism.”
South Africa’s rand currency weakened after news of the case, falling around 1.6 percent against the dollar as of 1500 GMT. [ZAR/]
Since the outbreak began in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in December, it has infected about 80,000 people and killed more than 3,000, mostly in China.
Earlier the health ministry said the patient was a 38-year-old male who traveled to Italy with his wife, passed through the main O.R. Tambo airport in Johannesburg when they returned home and then went to the eastern region of KwaZulu-Natal. They were part of a group of 10 people and they arrived back in South Africa on March 1, 2020, it added.
Health Minister Zweli Mkhize told journalists that authorities would start a wider search for contacts of the patient.
The coronavirus is thought to have originated in a market selling wildlife in Wuhan.
Both Ramaphosa and Mkhize praised China’s rapid response as a model for their own efforts.
However, Mkhize, addressing lawmakers in parliament, said: “I think we need to be upfront about it … Our system will be tested by the impact of coronavirus.”
He added that it was possible South Africa would run out of equipment such as protective clothing.
Last week, President Ramaphosa ordered the repatriation of nearly 200 citizens from Wuhan, and Mkhize said those citizens will be returning home in the next few days.
He added that South Africa was working with the World Health Organization (WHO) and some African institutions to help diagnose the virus across the region.
The health ministry said the patient had been self-isolating in KwaZulu-Natal since Tuesday after consulting a doctor over symptoms of coughing, a sore throat, headaches and a fever.
The doctor has also self-quarantined.
Health officials said a “tracer team” had been deployed to the province together with epidemiologists and clinicians to further investigate the circumstances of the infection.
(Reporting by Wendell Roelf; Additional reporting by Mfuneko Toyana in Johannesburg; Writing by Tim Cocks; Editing by Helen Reid and Alex Richardson)