Coronavirus 2019 and you: Know your risk


Old or young, men or women, home bodies or world travellers: are some people more at risk of contracting COVID-19 than others? Or is it time to redefine how we think about risk? Read what our public health experts have to say.

WHO Director-General: “We can push this virus back”

In March 2020, World Health Organization Director, General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus reassured the world that together, we can fight coronavirus 2019 and the disease it causes (COVID-19).

“More than 130 countries have not detected any cases yet,” Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in his opening remarks at the media briefing on the COVID-19 virus. “We can push this virus back. Your actions now will determine the course of the outbreak in your country.”

South Africa has active awareness campaigns and surveillance in place to identify people who show symptoms of the virus early. One such measure is fever screening at all international airports.

The message from local and global public health experts is clear: don’t panic, be cautious, stay safe. Still people ask: “Am I at risk of contracting the virus?”

Who is at risk of contracting COVID-19?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), people most at risk of contracting COVID-19 are:

  • People in places where ongoing community spread of the virus that causes COVID-19 has been reported are at increased risk of exposure, with increase in risk dependent on the location.
  • Healthcare workers caring for patients with COVID-19 are at elevated risk of exposure.
  • Close contacts of persons with COVID-19 also are at increased risk of exposure.
  • Travelers returning from affected international locations where community spread is occurring also are at increased risk of exposure, with increase in risk dependent on the location.
  • People who have a statistically higher risk of severe illness if they contract COVID-19:
    • Older adults
    • People who have serious chronic medical conditions like:
      • Heart disease
      • Diabetes
      • Lung disease

However, it’s not only these groups of people who could contract the disease. After a 29-year-old Chinese doctor died in late February 2020, communicable disease expert Dr Bharat Pankhania told The Guardian that we need to redefine how we think about risk: “All of us are at risk, and hence the superlative efforts at keeping containment in place, and keeping the virus from circulating as much as we can do”.

Preliminary research by the China Centre for Disease Control shows that more men (2.8%) have died as a result of COVID-19 than women (1.7%), but it’s too early to say that men are more at risk than women. Social factors such as gendered behaviour can also play a role.

At the end of the day, we must all work together to protect one another, break the stigma and spread awareness about coronavirus 2019. And bust a few myths while we’re at it.

For more information on coronaviruses, read our FAQ document.

All medical information found on this website including content, graphics and images, is for educational and informational objectives only. Discovery Health publishes this content to help to protect and empower all South Africans by promoting a better understanding of COVID-19.

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