A car guard in Durban puts on surgical gloves as a precaution against coronavirus
A car guard in Durban puts on surgical gloves as a precaution against coronavirus © AFP via Getty Images

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President Cyril Ramaphosa ordered a 21-day nationwide lockdown for South Africa, in the most drastic measures on the continent to tackle the spread of coronavirus.

The lockdown, to take effect from midnight on Thursday, is “necessary to fundamentally disrupt the chain of transmission” and stop South Africa’s tally of hundreds of cases rising into tens of thousands within days, Mr Ramaphosa said in a national address on Monday.

South African Covid-19 cases rose to more than 400 on Monday, a sixfold-increase in just over a week, amid rising worries about the effects of a mass outbreak on the country’s most vulnerable groups, including millions living with HIV.

“This is a decisive measure to save millions of South Africans from infection and save the lives of hundreds of thousands of people,” Mr Ramaphosa said.

South Africans will only be allowed out of their homes for essential supplies and for critical jobs, Mr Ramaphosa said. The armed forces would be deployed to support the police, he added. 

Only essential shops and businesses, including pharmacies, banks, supermarkets and petrol stations, will remain open. The Johannesburg stock exchange will also stay open.

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“While this measure will have a considerable impact on people’s livelihoods, on the life of our society and on our economy, the human cost of delaying this action would be far, far greater,” Mr Ramaphosa said.

South African businesses would set up a “solidarity fund” to help combat the spread of the virus and the government would flesh out a safety net for affected companies and employees alongside economic stimulus measures, Mr Ramaphosa said.

The lockdown in what is Africa’s most industrialised country comes as confirmed Covid-19 cases across Africa have surged to more than 1,600 in 43 countries. 

African governments have moved faster at an earlier stage than European countries did to stem the pandemic, but their public health systems are weak.

Rwanda’s government recently ordered its citizens to stay home, except for essential reasons, for two weeks. But the South African lockdown is longer and will affect a much bigger economy.

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South Africa had announced travel bans, a prohibition on large gatherings and school closures only a week ago. 

The move to a lockdown is especially drastic given the challenges of South Africa’s highly unequal post-apartheid society, where many impoverished residents of townships live in single-room shacks and often lack basic services such as running water.

Emergency water supplies would be sent to informal settlements and rural areas during the lockdown, Mr Ramaphosa said.

“In the days, weeks and months ahead our resolve, our resourcefulness and our unity as a nation will be tested as never before. I call on all of us, one and all, to play our part,” he said.

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