South Africa

From the Archives

11 Myths about COVID-19 in South Africa

11 Myths about COVID-19 in South Africa
(Photo: Unsplash / Hyttalo Souza)

COVID-19 (Coronovirus Disease 2019) has fuelled fear and panic among many people across the globe – often based on misperceptions and unfortunately often against people of Asian descent. Here we try to dispel some myths and answer some common questions based on the available scientific evidence.

Since the COVID-19 virus is a new virus that is still being studied, some of the information below may change as we learn more about the virus. At the time of writing, several important questions remain unanswered. 

Myth 1: Most people who contract COVID-19 will get very sick or die

Around eight out of every 10 people who become infected with COVID-19 only have mild disease and recover. Around 1 in 20 get so sick that they may require hospitalisation. Only around 1 in 50 people diagnosed with COVID-19 have died (if you factor in people who have not been diagnosed the death rate is probably under 1 in 100). This makes COVID-19 much less deadly than other recent viral outbreaks such as SARS (8%) and MERS (>30%) – In the technical jargon, COVID-19 has a lower case fatality rate than SARS and MERS. As we learn more about COVID-19 in the coming weeks and months some of the above numbers may change, but probably not too dramatically.

Myth 2: Since COVID-19 is less deadly than SARS, it will kill fewer people

COVID-19 has already killed more people than SARS – even though SARS was more deadly. This is because COVID-19 is more infectious and has infected more people. The fact that it infects so many people means that the death toll can be high, even though the risk of any specific individual diagnosed with the virus dying of COVID-19 is relatively low.

Myth 3: You can stay safe by avoiding Chinese people

Though the COVID-19 outbreak started in China, there are now significant outbreaks in a range of countries, including Italy, Iran, Japan and South Korea. So far there is no evidence that any race or nationality is more likely to contract or transmit the virus. While recent travel to China is still an indicator that someone is at an increased risk of having been infected with COVID-19, this will become less and less so over time. If, for example, there is a substantial outbreak in South Africa, chances are that most people contracting and transmitting the virus will not only be people of Chinese descent.

Myth 4: Only older men need to worry about COVID-19.

It is true that older people, and men in particular, are at higher risk of dying of COVID-19, but everyone is at risk, except it seems children under 10. Those suffering from pre-existing conditions like high blood pressure, asthma, diabetes and heart disease, are more likely to get sick. It seems plausible that people living with HIV who are not on antiretroviral treatment or who have low CD4 counts may also be at higher risk of getting seriously ill or dying of COVID-19. However, there is no international data on this yet.

Myth 5: All I need to protect myself from COVID-19 is a mask

Probably the most important things you can do to protect yourself is to regularly wash your hands and to touch your face as little as possible when you are in public. The general rule is that masks are better at preventing someone with a viral infection from transmitting the virus than it is at preventing a healthy person from contracting the virus. As such, masks are recommended for infected people, or people who may be infected, who are in public places and not recommended for most healthy people. The exceptions to this are healthcare workers and other people who care for infected persons. The World Health Organization (WHO) advises people to only wear masks if they’re healthy and looking after someone who contracted the virus or when you are coughing and sneezing. It’s important to note that the efficacy of these masks also depend on which mask you buy, and if you are using/wearing it correctly.

Myth 6: People with COVID-19 are easy to identify

One of the most challenging things about COVID-19 is that it can infect anyone and is relatively hard to diagnose. The symptoms are generic and hard to distinguish from other illnesses, such as a cough, chest infection or flu. Reported symptoms include fever, coughing and shortness of breath. Some people also show only very mild symptoms – but can nevertheless transmit the virus. This makes the spread of COVID-19 extremely hard to prevent.

Myth 7: Government is hiding South Africa’s real COVID-19 numbers

There is no evidence that government is hiding any figures relating to COVID-19 in South Africa. That said, as in all countries, there may be cases of COVID-19 that have not been diagnosed – this is especially so since symptoms are similar to that of many other upper respiratory infections and most people only have mild illness. For this reason, if there is a COVID-19 outbreak in South Africa, the official figures – like everywhere – will almost certainly be an underestimate. However, using official figures and other things we know about the virus and its spread, epidemiologists should be able to come up with reliable estimates of the actual number of cases (diagnosed plus undiagnosed).

Myth 8: People who cough in the coming weeks probably have COVID-19

Although COVID-19 symptoms include coughing, the first sign of a cough does not necessarily mean someone has COVID-19. Coughing is a symptom of many commonly occurring conditions in South Africa, including the common cold, flu, and tuberculosis. Thus, unless things change really drastically, most people you come across with a cough will NOT be infected with COVID-19, but with something much more familiar to us.

Myth 9: There is a secret cure for COVID-19

A number of different antiviral medicines are currently being tested against COVID-19, but nothing has been shown to work yet. Some of them may turn out to be effective. It is not yet known for certain. For now the treatment of COVID-19 mainly involves managing symptoms and keeping patients alive (for example through breathing support).

There is no evidence that any vitamins, supplements, or other remedies can prevent COVID-19 disease or help treat it once someone is infected.

Myth 10: My pet is at risk from COVID-19

According to the WHO your pet is safe. There is currently no evidence that pets can be infected with the COVID-19 virus. The WHO nevertheless advises that people wash their hands with soap and water whenever they’ve touched their pets since it can help protect you against common infections that can pass between pets and humans.

Myth 11: I should avoid Chinese food until COVID-19 is forgotten

There is no reason for people in South Africa to stop eating Chinese food. In fact, if you want to help counter some of the irrational responses to Chinese food and Chinese businesses you might consider specifically supporting Chinese businesses as is being done in the #iwilleatwithyou campaign.

For more information see this excellent Q&A prepared by the UK’s National Health Service. (If South Africa’s National Institutes for Communicable Diseases produces something similar we will post a link to that here as well.)

*Note: Thank you to Dr Tim Tucker for checking a draft of this article. Spotlight takes sole responsibility for any errors the article may contain. Should you spot any inaccuracies, please let us know by commenting in the comment section below this article.

This article was produced by Spotlight – health journalism in the public interest.


Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted


This article is free to read.

Sign up for free or sign in to continue reading.

Unlike our competitors, we don’t force you to pay to read the news but we do need your email address to make your experience better.

Nearly there! Create a password to finish signing up with us:

Please enter your password or get a sign in link if you’ve forgotten

Open Sesame! Thanks for signing up.

We would like our readers to start paying for Daily Maverick...

…but we are not going to force you to. Over 10 million users come to us each month for the news. We have not put it behind a paywall because the truth should not be a luxury.

Instead we ask our readers who can afford to contribute, even a small amount each month, to do so.

If you appreciate it and want to see us keep going then please consider contributing whatever you can.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options

Daily Maverick Elections Toolbox

Feeling powerless in politics?

Equip yourself with the tools you need for an informed decision this election. Get the Elections Toolbox with shareable party manifesto guide.