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Africa's Biggest Economy Jittery Over Coronavirus Fears

FILE - A health worker checks the temperature of a man arriving at Bata Airport, in Litoral, Equatorial Guinea, Jan. 14, 2015.
FILE - A health worker checks the temperature of a man arriving at Bata Airport, in Litoral, Equatorial Guinea, Jan. 14, 2015.

South African officials say they’re ready for the possible spread of the deadly coronavirus to African shores.

So far, no cases have been reported in Africa of the pneumonia-like virus, which started in China and has killed at least 106 people. But in the continent's largest economic hub, preparations -- and concerns -- are in the air.

South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases says the officials are taking precautions at the continent’s busiest airport, in Johannesburg.

"We have noted the four cases of novel coronavirus that have recently been confirmed in Australia," said the institute's Professor Cheryl Cohen. "These were anticipated due to the proximity of Australia to Asia. We would like to assure South Africans that South Africa is prepared for any eventuality of an outbreak. We have put in place systems to rapidly identify detect and respond to any imported cases that may reach our borders.”

Some 21 million travelers came through Johannesburg’s O.R. Tambo International Airport in 2018. It is the only airport in South Africa with direct flights to and from China.

The airport has previously implemented temperature testing and health screening during outbreaks of Ebola, Zika and other viruses.

But although no one is sick yet, says economist Lara Hodes of Investec Bank, the Johannesburg Stock Exchange has slumped as news of the outbreak has spread. China is South Africa’s biggest trading partner.

That is normal, she says, as one study showed that the 2002 SARS epidemic cost global markets as much as $40 billion.
"So it's so, it's definitely had an effect, a mild effect. The JSE has been down. It will generally affect financial markets and in turn impact commodity prices and the exchange rate," she told VOA.

"But it’s very early days and there's a lot of hype around it because of, you know, SARS a few years ago, they’re worried about the extent it will spread. But I think it’s more of a wait and see.”

Chinese health authorities say the coronavirus has infected more than 4,500 people since it was identified in the city of Wuhan Dec. 31. The epidemic has led to the quarantine of millions as Chinese officials try to halt the virus from spreading.