South Africa’s lockdown struggles

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Bustling streets and long queues at supermarkets highlighted South Africa’s struggle to adapt to a new lockdown on Friday, as the country recorded its first coronavirus death.

In Alexandra near Johannesburg’s financial district, a group of men drank openly in the street until police intervened and ordered supermarkets closed.

“How can you stay home without food? We are here is because we are hungry. We are here for groceries so we can stay indoors, you can’t stay indoors without food,” Alexandra resident Linda Songelwa told Reuters.

South Africa’s 21-day lockdown restricts people to their homes for most activities including exercise, only permitting them out to buy food or for health emergencies.

With shops, restaurants and offices shuttered and confirmed coronavirus cases rising to 1 170, streets in affluent parts of Johannesburg appeared quieter than usual.

Some supermarket staff remaining open hitched a ride in police cars.

In Alexandra and other townships, where cramped conditions make social distancing almost impossible, large crowds gathered.

Townships, where people rely on an ailing public health system, are a breeding ground for the coronavirus. Many residents are too poor to weather the associated economic fallout and lack funds to stock up on adequate food.

Police Minister Bheki Cele said there were “a few issues” with the lockdown, including in Alexandra and where people had not observed social distancing in shop queues.

“Sometimes people that join those queues are not even there to make the shopping, they are there for outing because they don’t have other activities… So we are sifting those things and we are going to be tough with those people.”

South Africa’s health ministry said on Friday one person died from the coronavirus, while four patients were in intensive care, with three on ventilators. Government is expanding its testing capacity.

TOUGH TO ENFORCE

The lockdown ordered by President Cyril Ramaphosa is among Africa’s strictest, empowering government to call out the army to enforce it.

It will be a challenge, as authorities in other African countries are finding.

In Kenya’s coastal city Mombasa, police fired teargas and hit citizens trying to force their way onto a ferry for transport between the mainland and a coastal island.

Authorities announced a queuing system to reduce congestion, part of measures to curb the coronavirus outbreak.

In Congo’s capital Kinshasa, 10 million people were supposed to go under lockdown on Saturday. The scheme was postponed on Friday after the city governor said the measure was pushing up the price of essential goods.

In one part of downtown Johannesburg Reuters saw police sweep up 300 homeless people and take them to a shelter.

TIME FOR THE IMF?

Ramaphosa lobbied richer countries to help cushion the blow to Africa from a pandemic that has killed more than 24 000 people globally and devastated supply chains.

South Africa’s economy appears particularly vulnerable. Its currency lost more than one percent against the dollar following the news of the rise in cases and first death.

The country is in recession caused mostly by power cuts at dysfunctional state-run utility, Eskom.

Mining companies, the core of its economy, are either cutting or shutting down production. Platinum group metal output will continue. South Africa’s airports and ports are also shut, interrupting global copper supplies.

State logistics firm Transnet is scaling down non-essential cargo operations.

Moody’s downgraded South Africa’s sovereign credit rating to ‘junk’ status on Friday, the last of the big three agencies to do so, after S&P Global and Fitch moved the rating below investment grade in 2017.

The central bank launched a bond-buying scheme to revive a moribund credit market, while Ramaphosa announced measures aimed at helping small businesses.

Unemployment is at a decade high of 30% plus and ailing state companies bled billions of rand.

“It’s extremely difficult to see what South Africa can do. The structural problems that have held the country back are not going to be easily fixed,” said Charles Robertson, global chief economist at Renaissance Capital.