JOHANNESBURG – South Africa's president appeared in full military uniform for the first time since the end of apartheid and told troops to be a “force of kindness” as a three-week lockdown begins at midnight and they ensure that 57 million people stay home. The mission is the "most important in the history of our country" as coronavirus cases near 1,000, the highest in Africa.
“Our people are terrified right now and we should not do anything to make their situation worse,” President Cyril Ramaphosa told police earlier Thursday. “Psychologically they are already scared that they could get the virus, lose income, lose jobs, get sick without medication.”
Anxiety has been especially high for low-income South Africans squeezed into townships, sometimes with an extended family sharing a shack of corrugated metal and little income. Fears of an increase in domestic violence and rape have been expressed by civil society groups. And economic pain is widespread, with a recession and unemployment at 29%. South Africa remains one of the world's most unequal countries a quarter-century after the racist apartheid system ended in 1994.
“I have even resorted to selling face masks so as I can be able to raise money and return to my homeland outside (Johannesburg),” said street vendor Dinko Seroka, as people lined up to take buses to more rural areas. “As you can see here, everyone is leaving for their homelands, and if I stay behind I don’t know how I’m going to survive.”
South Africa has 927 virus cases, with no reported deaths. Africa’s total cases are now 3,037 with South Africa’s latest cases added to the toll of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Forty-six of the continent’s 54 countries have the virus.
South Africa’s lockdown is one of the world’s strictest, with alcohol sales, running and dog-walking banned. Citizens should expect to be sober for 21 days, authorities have said, but sales at liquor stores were brisk on Thursday. Borders have closed except for transport of essential goods.
Without naming countries, the World Health Organization regional chief for Africa, Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, told reporters that “draconian” restrictions must include strong public health measures to truly contain the virus’ spread. Humanitarian corridors might be needed as well, she said.
The window is “narrowing every day” but there's still a chance to contain the virus' spread in many countries, Moeti said. About half of African nations with the virus have only imported cases from abroad.
More countries are expected to impose lockdowns. On Thursday, the president of Botswana, who has been in self-isolation as a precaution after a weekend trip to Namibia, told citizens to “Please prepare yourselves" for an imminent one.
Rwanda locked down over the weekend, and police denied that two people shot dead had been killed for defying the new measures. Police spokesman John Bosco Kabera said the two were riding a motorbike on Monday in the south when they were stopped by an officer and attacked him, prompting his colleague to fire in self-defense.
In Rwanda’s capital, Kigali, streets were empty while authorities used megaphones to urge people to stay indoors. The government has promised to provide food to vulnerable people.
“I ask our government to please have a good heart for your people during these difficult times,” shopper Jacqueline Murekatete said as officers wearing face masks and gloves instructed people at a market how to stand in line.
“We need to eat and we are desperate for your help. Now we have two pandemics. We have hunger and we have the coronavirus, and our hunger is the new pandemic we are faced with. This is just dreadful.”
In Uganda, police with guns and sticks enforced a new two-week ban on public transport. Gunfire rang out in one street in the capital, Kampala, as officers chased people and roughed up suspects accused of defying the president’s orders.
Elsewhere, Nigeria said it would ban travel between its states in Africa’s most populous country. Eritrea closed schools and public transport. Kenya reported its first death. And Somalia, with one of the world’s most fragile health systems after nearly three decades of conflict, reported its second virus case.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.
African officials have showed varying levels of sensitivity to their own health measures. While South Africa’s president said he tested negative for the virus as a precaution, some people in Kenya were appalled after national health officials met to discuss the coronavirus and then shared a group photo — with people standing shoulder-to-shoulder.
Rodney Muhumuza in Kampala, Uganda; Ignatius Ssuuna in Kigali, Rwanda and Cara Anna in Johannesburg contributed.