Johannesburg, Mar 26 (AFP) South Africa braced for a nationwide lockdown Thursday, joining other African countries imposing strict curfews and shutdowns in an attempt to halt the spread of the coronavirus across the continent.
Some 57 million people will be restricted to their homes during South Africa's three-week total lockdown which begins at midnight.
Kenya, Rwanda and Mali are some of the African countries that have imposed restrictions to curb the spread of the coronavirus with the continent recording 2,748 cases and 73 deaths so far.
Although Africa's toll is far lower than in Europe, the United States and the Middle East, health experts say the world's poorest continent is especially vulnerable and the figures likely fall far short of the reality.
During South Africa's 21-day shutdown there will be no jogging, dog-walking or sale of alcohol across the country, which has so far recorded 709 cases, the highest number of detected infections in sub-Saharan Africa.
Nigeria's government warned Thursday that Africa's most populous nation could soon see an "exponential" increase in coronavirus infections unless contacts of confirmed cases are tracked down quicker.
Hours before the start of the lockdown, panicky residents in South Africa's economic hub Johannesburg stocked up on food and other supplies with some large supermarkets running out of eggs and the staple maize meal powder.
Queues formed outside food shops across the country as people stocked up for the 21-day shutdown.
At a popular chain of grocery shop in Johannesburg's Douglasdale suburb some customers were loading trolleys full of lagers and wines.
One man tried to jump the queue saying he was only going to the liquor store and did not consider it necessary for him to join the long queue of other shoppers. He was politely told to be patient by a face-masked marshal who carried a jar of hand sanitiser to spray trolley handles.
Elsewhere, thousands of people crammed long-distance bus terminals to escape to the countryside to be with families, raising fears they would export the virus to the most vulnerable old who normally reside or retire to farms and villages.
President Cyril Ramaphosa has called for half-an-hour of national prayers on the eve of the lockdown.
He requested South Africans observe two minutes of "prayer, reflection or silent meditation" between 6pm (1600 GMT) and 6:30pm (1630 GMT) wherever they will be.
"These are challenging times. We are traversing a path we have never travelled before. There are many amongst us who are fearful, uncertain and vulnerable," he said.
"I call on our people to offer a prayer and a thought for the protection and healing of our land and its people from this disease." As with other African countries, South Africa's lockdown will be patrolled by the military and the police.
Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula warned "if people are not complying, they (the military) may be forced to take extraordinary measures." Violation of any of the regulations will carry a six-month jail sentence or fine.
Two men have already been charged with attempted murder for defying a quarantine order and allegedly going out after they tested positive for the coronavirus, exposing others to the infection.
"It's not a fairytale to say the law will act and act very harsh on you," Police Minister Bheki Cele said.
Moody's Investors Service warned Friday that the effect of border closures, commodity price declines and financial market volatility due to the pandemic will have "severe macroeconomic and financial impact on African sovereigns".
In one early indication of the likely impact of the pandemic on Africa's economy, rubber processors in Ivory Coast -- the continent's largest producer -- said they were bracing for losses of around $100 million a month.
"Right now, our biggest clients, in Asia, Europe and America, have closed down. The progressive impact of this will be a slowdown in rubber processing activity, even a closedown," said Eugene Kremien, president of industry association Apromac.
"Our industry is already suffering, and it's just the start. We are going to lose 60 billion CFA francs ($100 million, 91 million euros) each month, which compares with the 600 billion CFA (in income) we were expecting this year." (AFP)
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