More African countries closed their borders Thursday as the coronavirus' local spread threatened to turn the continent of 1.3 billion people into an alarming new front for the pandemic.
"About 10 days ago we had about five countries" with the virus, WHO's Africa chief Dr. Matshidiso Moeti told reporters. Now 34 of Africa's 54 countries have cases, with the total close to 650. It's an "extremely rapid evolution," she said. In fact, the first sub-Saharan Africa case was announced Feb. 28.
She said she did not believe that large numbers of infected people are going undetected in Africa. However, she did acknowledge a challenge in the shortage of testing kits. Forty-three countries have testing capability, up from two when the outbreak began.
The WHO regional chief also expressed concern about travel restrictions and their impact on the ability to deliver needed resources. The WHO is considering humanitarian corridors, Moeti said.
But many African nations were taking their cue from China and other countries by sharply restricting travel.
On Thursday, Senegal closed its airspace. Angola and Cameroon shut air, land and sea borders. Rwanda blocked all commercial flights for a month. The island nation of Mauritius closed its border after announcing its first case.
Some people in other countries clamored for their governments to block flights, too.
"To stop this virus once and for all is to stop any flight that will land to (Nairobi's international airport). Let them stop," said Uhuru Evans, a bus driver in the capital of Kenya, East Africa's economic hub.
He offered hand sanitizer to passengers as they boarded.
"Since it was announced that it has reached Kenya, I am refusing to take customers to the airport," said Peter Muteru, a taxi driver. "It has reached a point where I carry only people I know."
Some African nations also began cracking down on alcohol sales to help prevent the coronavirus' spread.
South Africa — where the number of cases jumped to 150 from 116 — said all places that sell alcohol for drinking on site must close from 6 p.m. to 9 a.m. And they must accommodate less than 50 people at a time or close immediately.
Authorities have raised concerns about crowded drinking spots in the country with the most cases in sub-Saharan Africa.
In Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni has barred attendance at bars and clubs, calling limiting "merry-making" a new front in virus prevention.
"Drunkards sit close to one another. They speak with saliva coming out of their mouth. They are a danger to themselves," he said.
While some worried people pushed for testing, the head of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. John Nkengasong, warned that simply being tested shouldn't end anyone's concerns.
"If you are tested today, it doesn't mean you aren't infected tomorrow," he told reporters.
Meanwhile, a day after the U.S. Embassy in Ethiopia issued a security alert about reports of attacks on foreigners accused of having the virus, that country's health minister appealed for calm.
"COVID-19 is not related to any country or nationality," Lia Tadesse said. "It is a test against all humanity."
A cruise ship on Egypt's Nile River with over 150 tourists and local crew was in quarantine Saturday in the southern city of Luxor, after 12 people tested positive for the new coronavirus.
A Taiwanese-American tourist who had previously been on the same ship tested positive when she returned to Taiwan. The World Health Organization informed Egyptian authorities, who tested everyone currently on the ship.
Health authorities found a dozen of the ship's Egyptian crew members had contracted the fast-spreading virus, but did not show symptoms, according to a statement Friday.
The statement said the 12 will be transferred to isolation in a hospital on Egypt's north coast. The passengers — who include Americans, French and other nationalities — and the crew will remain quarantined on the ship awaiting further test results.
Egyptian authorities have been tight-lipped about the virus outbreak, previously reporting only three confirmed cases. That's even as the wider Mideast now has over 6,000 confirmed cases.
In hard-hit Iran, the Health Ministry said Saturday that 21 more people had died from the virus, bringing the death toll to 145. More than 1,000 infections were also confirmed overnight, bringing the total to 5,823 cases nationwide.
Health Ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour said 16,000 cases were hospitalized across the country, with some still being tested or monitored to see if they had contracted the virus. The capital of Tehran had the most infections, with more than 1,500 cases, followed by the Shiite holy city of Qom with 668 and the northern Mazandaran province with 606 cases.
Among the dead was Fatemeh Rahabar, a 55-year-old newly elected lawmaker who passed away in Tehran, the state-run IRNA news agency reported Saturday. She'd been elected to the next parliament that begins work in May. Earlier this week, Iranian lawmaker Abdolreza Mesri told state television that 23 members in the current parliament had the coronavirus, and urged all lawmakers to avoid the public.
The new cases in Egypt came just days after three people were diagnosed with coronavirus in the U.S. state of Texas. Officials in the city of Houston said Thursday that they believe the three were exposed to the virus while on a trip to Egypt in late February.
It was not immediately clear if the Texan tourists were on the same boat where the cluster occurred, how long the passengers on the ship had been quarantined, nor where exactly the initial Taiwanese tourist had contracted the virus.
The new and fast-spreading coronavirus could deliver a major blow to Egypt's tourism industry. The government has been struggling for years to revive the vital sector following the country's 2011 Arab Spring uprising.
Other countries around the world have closed schools and universities, while also cancelling major art, sporting and business events.
Egypt does not appear to have taken any of these types of measures, and Friday's discovery of the 12 cases coincided with the opening day of the Luxor African Film Festival.
"It's still unclear how many people came in contact with the group in the infected ship," said a senior police officer in Luxor. Cruise ships on the Nile often dock side by side, with passengers getting on and off by walking through several other vessels.
"No one knows the extent of this," the officer added, speaking on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to talk to reporters.
A young man who works on cruise ships said many have left their work after the incident, fearing infection.
The country's national air carrier, Egypt Air, has suspended direct flights to China since late January. The virus, which originated in China, has infected more than 100,000 people globally.
The previous two cases in Egypt were a Chinese and a Canadian national, then an Egyptian who was in Serbia and had stayed for 12 hours in France before arriving in Cairo. Egyptian authorities said Friday that tests on over 2,500 people came back negative for the virus.
Elsewhere in the region, the United Arab Emirates reported 15 additional coronavirus cases on Saturday, bringing the total number of infections in the country to 45.
The UAE is a major tourist destination and most of its residents are foreigners. The emirate of Dubai is also home to the world's busiest airport for international travel. Authorities have urged residents and citizens not to take unnecessary trips abroad, and to expect screenings and possible quarantines upon return.
To stymie the spread of the virus, the UAE has suspended schools, nurseries and universities for a month. It has also stopped flights to Iran and limited flights to China.
The UAE's Health Ministry said 13 of the new cases had recently arrived from abroad, and they include three Emirati citizens, two Saudis, two Ethiopians and two Iranians, as well as a person each from Thailand, China, Morocco and India. The statement gave no further details on where the travelers had come, when they had arrived to the UAE and which ports of entry they had come in from.
The other two cases, an Emirati and an Egyptian, were diagnosed after being monitored in connection with a cycling tour in the country that was halted a week ago.
Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, announced there would be no spectators for sports competitions and games starting Saturday in order to combat the spread of the virus. The kingdom has five confirmed cases, but has taken unprecedented measures against the virus' spread, including halting all pilgrimage in Mecca, Islam's holiest site.
Tehran's mosques authority banned any collective prayer and religious ceremonies in Tehran's mosques starting Saturday. They'll still remain open individual prayers.
South Africa on Thursday reported the first case of the COVID-19 coronavirus.
"The National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) confirmed that a suspected case of COVID-19 has tested positive. The patient is a 38-year-old male who travelled to Italy with his wife," Health Minister Zweli Mkhize said in a statement.
They were part of a group of 10 people and they arrived back in South Africa on March 1, the minister said.
The patient consulted a private general practitioner on March 3, with symptoms of fever, headache, malaise, a sore throat and a cough, Mkhize said.
The practice nurse took swabs and delivered it to the lab. The patient has been self-isolated since March 3.
The couple also has two children. The Emergency Operating Center (EOC) has identified the contacts by interviewing the patient and doctor.
The tracer team has been deployed to KwaZulu-Natal with epidemiologists and clinicians from NICD.
The doctor has been self-isolated as well, according to the minister.
South Africa is set to evacuate 151 citizens from the Chinese city of Wuhan as a new virus continues to spread across the globe, authorities said Sunday.
The South Africans will be evacuated in a military operation that will see them quarantined for 21 days after they arrive in the country, Health Minister Zweli Mkhize said.
All of the South Africans returning are healthy and have tested negative for the virus, but as a safety precaution they will be under quarantine upon their arrival in South Africa, Mkhize said. The airlift would take place in about 10 days, he said.
South Africa is the first country in sub-Saharan Africa to evacuate its citizens from China and affected areas.
The decision to evacuate the citizens follows pleas from families of South Africans still held up in Wuhan, the city identified as the main source of the outbreak.
South Africa's health care facilities are ready to receive the evacuated South Africans, though these sites wouldn't be made known, Mkhize said. He said the country has prepared to deal with the new virus and has designated selected public hospitals to deal with any possible infections.
South Africa hasn't recorded any confirmed COVID-19 cases within its borders. Three countries in Africa — Algeria, Egypt and Nigeria — have reported cases of the disease. Other African countries are on alert, with some health experts saying several national health systems on the continent are weak in disease surveillance and control.
South Africa confirmed last week that two citizens who had been working on the Princess Diamond cruise ship have the virus and will continue to receive treatment in Japan.
Finance Minister Tito Mboweni on Wednesday announced the formation of the South African Sovereign Wealth Fund, which will serve as a counter-cyclical fiscal tool.
"This will ensure that we continue to invest in the future generations of this country in a fiscally-prudent manner," the minister said in his Budget Speech in Parliament.
The fund has a target capital amount of about 30 billion rand (about 2 billion U.S. dollars), Mboweni said.
This came as South Africa is struggling to contain rising debt amid sluggish economic growth and a budget deficit projected to widen to a near three-decade high of 6.8 percent in the coming fiscal year.
"A Sovereign Wealth Fund is an important long-term tool for saving and investment for future generations," Mboweni said.
It can also contribute to strengthening the fiscal framework, he said.
"We must learn to save during the good times, and a fund can play an important role as a counter-cyclical fiscal tool," said the minister.
There are a variety of possible funding sources, such as the proceeds of spectrum allocation, petroleum, gas or minerals rights royalties, the sale of non-core state assets, future fiscal surpluses and money the government sets aside, according to Mboweni.
Given the legal, administrative and procedural issues involved, a relevant bill will be submitted for consideration in parliament, the minister said.
Preferred options for the establishment of a state bank are now ready, Mboweni told lawmakers.
The architecture will be that of a retail bank operating on commercial principles, he said.
Last year, Parliament passed legislation which will allow state-owned enterprises to apply for banking licences.
The proposed state bank will be subject to the Banks Act, and will have an appropriate capital structure and performance parameters on investments and loan impairments, said Mboweni.
It will be regulated by the Prudential Authority on its own merits, he said.
"We will also consolidate the currently fragmented system of national and provincial Development Finance Institutions," Mboweni said.