Covid-19: Timeline of a virus

Covid-19: Timeline of a virusPHOTO: Joyrene Kramer/Spotlight
News & Features

Since the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic, many countries scaled up efforts to contain the virus. By March 18 the global number of cases reportedly surpassed the 200 000 mark. Here are some highlights in developments since the outbreak in Wuhan, China.

30 December 2019

Dr Li Wenliang, of Wuhan, Hubei province, China sends a WeChat (similar to WhatsApp) message to fellow doctors warning them about a possible outbreak of an illness that resembled severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). Soon after Chinese authorities detained Li accusing him of “spreading rumours”. Li nevertheless continued to speak out about the virus and became a symbol of principled resistance to attempts to suppress information about the virus. Li contracted the virus and died on 7 February 2020.

Dr Li Wengliang

31 December 2019

A “pneumonia of unknown cause”, detected in Wuhan, China, is officially reported to the WHO Country Office in China.

11 January 2020

The Chinese government announces that the first known death caused by the new virus had occurred two days earlier. The virus’ first known victim was a 61-year-old man who had visited the seafood market in Wuhan that is thought to have been the source of the outbreak.


13 January 2020

The WHO reports that a woman in Thailand had tested positive for the virus – the first case outside of China. Cases would soon follow in Japan, South Korea, the United States and other countries.

24 January 2020

An article published in the Lancet medical journal strongly suggests that the virus can be transmitted from person-to-person. The article is one of the first of a flood of academic articles investigating the virus and its spread. Most articles about the virus are published online in ways that make them free to read for anyone who is interested.

IMAGE: Stuart Rankin

27 January 2020

Less than three weeks after the first reported death, the death toll in China now stands at 106. Many more deaths would be reported in the following weeks.

South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) publishes a statement declaring: “We would like to assure South Africans that South Africa is prepared to deal with the eventuality of a possible imported case as we have put in place systems to rapidly identify, detect and respond to any cases that may reach our borders.”

30 January 2020

The WHO declares the coronavirus outbreak a “public health emergency of international concern”.

PHOTO: David Wood

9 February 2020

A month after the first reported death, the coronavirus death toll in China reaches 811, surpassing the number of deaths caused by the SARS outbreak of 2002.

11 February 2020

The WHO gives the name COVID-19 (Coronavirus Disease 2019) to the disease caused by the new coronavirus. The WHO refers to the virus itself as the COVID-19 virus. The official name of the virus, as given by the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses, is SARS-CoV-2.

20 February 2020

A modelling study published in the Lancet medical journal finds that South Africa, Egypt and Algeria are the three African countries at highest risk of importing the coronavirus. A few days earlier on February 14 Egypt became the first country in Africa to report a case of COVID-19.

23 February 2020

A number of matches in the Italian football league are suspended due to fears of virus transmission at stadiums. These are some of the first public gatherings to be suspended or cancelled in Europe due to COVID-19. Many more would follow.

25 February 2020

Deputy Health Minister of Iran Iraj Harirchi tests positive for the virus a day after speaking at a press conference about the virus. A substantial outbreak in Iran is suspected.

Deputy Health Minister of Iran Iraj Harirchi (left)

25 February 2020

Japanese authorities alerts the South African government that two of 12 South Africans working on the Princess Diamond Cruise ship tested positive for COVID-19.

PHOTO: Bernard Spragg

27 February 2020

Following requests by families of South Africans in China, President Cyril Ramaphosa directs the evacuation of South Africans from Wuhan. A total of 132 of an estimated 199 South Africans living there, indicated they want to be repatriated. None of these individuals have been diagnosed with COVID-19.

First sub-Saharan African confirmed case in Nigeria. It is reported that an Italian citizen working in Lagos flew in from Milan on 25 February and was being treated in Lagos. This brings the total confirmed cases in Africa to 3 after the first reported case in Egypt and another case in Algeria confirmed on 25 February.

1 March 2020

South African government announces some details of repatriation plan for South Africans in China.

5 March 2020
A 38-year-old man from KwaZulu-Natal becomes the first person in South Africa to test positive for the COVID-19 virus. The man was part of a
group of 10 people who had just returned from a trip to Northern Italy. Six more of the ten would test positive in the following days. These first seven infections are all thought to be imported cases and not the result of transmission inside South Africa.
7 March 2020
The WHO announces that the total number of people world-wide confirmed to have been infected with COVID-19 has risen above 100 000. Since
many mild cases would not have been detected, the real number of infections at this point is likely much higher.
8 March 2020
The Northern region of Italy goes into lockdown affecting 16 million
10 March 2020
The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) reports its first confirmed COVID-19 case.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres with Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus Director-General of the World Health Organisation (right). PHOTO: UN Photo /Jean Marc Ferré
11 March 2020
WHO declares COVID-19 a pandemic as it has spread over several continents affecting major pockets of the populations. WHO Director -General Tedros Ghebreyesus said: “We have never before seen a pandemic sparked by a coronavirus. This is the first pandemic caused by a coronavirus.”
13 March 2020
WHO flags Europe as epicentre of the pandemic as most cases, apart from China, are now recorded in Europe.
South Africans students arrive at Polokwane International Airport from Wuhan, China. PHOTO: Molefi Moleli
14 March 2020
USA declares a national emergency on COVID-19.
South African students return from Wuhan, China. The students were moved to a quarantine facility in Limpopo upon arrival. All of them tested negative for COVID-19.
15 March 2020
President Cyril Ramaphosa announces a serious of far-reaching measures to fight the spread of the virus in South Africa – including travel bans and social isolation measures such as the banning of meetings of more than 100 people. He also declares a National State of Disaster.
Pres Cyril Ramaphosa practicing the elbow greeting to demonstrate social distancing. PHOTO: GCIS
16 March 2020
UK researchers publish the results of a modelling study suggesting that measures to contain COVID-19 may have to remain in place for as
long as 18 months. This runs counter to some initial thinking that the measures would only need to be in place for a month or two.
(here’s the link to the study)
EU closes all borders for 30 days.
Brazil records its 1st death.
18 March 2020
The global number of COVID-19 cases are reported to have crossed the 200 000 mark, while total infections in South Africa for the first time exceed 100. The WHO announces the so-called SOLIDARITY trial which will test four different potential treatments for COVID-19. The trial is to be conducted in at least 10 countries, including South Africa.
Zambia reports its first confirmed case.
All schools close in SA until Easter.
*This timeline will be update as new information emerges about COVID-19.

Note: In this article we draw on a wide variety of sources, including the Lancet’s repository of COVID-19 articles, the WHO’s COVID-19 pages, and this Al Jazeera timeline of the spread of COVID-19.

23 March 2020
President Cyril Ramaphosa announces that a far-reaching 21-day lockdown of South African society will start on 26 March. This lockdown was later extended by two weeks and finally ended on 30 April.
2 April 2020
Over one million people world-wide have tested positive for the COVID-19 virus, by the end of the month it would be over three million.
10 April 2020
The world-wide death toll passes 100 000.
29 April 2020
Confirmed COVID-19 cases in South Africa rise above 5 000 and reported COVID-19 deaths in the country cross the 100 mark.