South Africa struggles to adapt to lockdown after first coronavirus deaths

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South Africans struggled to adapt to new confinement rules on Friday, with many city streets no less crowded than normal as a strict lockdown regime took effect and the country recorded its first coronavirus deaths.

The 21-day lockdown came into force at midnight. It restricts people to their homes for most activities including exercise, only permitting excursions for buying food or health emergencies.

With shops, restaurants and offices shuttered and the number of confirmed domestic coronavirus cases rising above 1,000, streets in affluent parts of Johannesburg appeared quieter than usual. No buses ran and some staff of supermarkets that remained open hitched a ride to work in police cars.

But large crowds continued to gather in nearby Alexandra and other poor townships, where cramped conditions militate against social distancing and offer a rich breeding ground for the virus among people reliant on an ailing public health system.

Many are also too poor to weather the associated economic fallout.

“I don’t have money, now I am thinking what should I do? Because of this I will be stuck in the house with my babies and everyone and my wife,” street vendor Godfrey Thula told Reuters in downtown Johannesburg.

The country’s first two deaths from the virus both occurred in Western Cape, 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) to the southwest, while total cases rose above 1,000 from 927 on Thursday, the health ministry said.

The cases include a German, who was detained and quarantined along with 59 other members of a tour group as they tried to leave the country, government news agency SABA reported.

Africa’s most industrialized nation is an epicenter of the outbreak on a continent where more than 3,200 people have been infected overall, of whom 84 have died.

The lockdown ordered by President Cyril Ramaphosa, who took a virus test that came back negative on Wednesday, is among Africa’s strictest, empowering the government to call out the army to enforce it and making the deliberate dissemination of false information a criminal offense.

But enforcing the restrictions will be a challenge of the kind that authorities in some other African countries are already compromising on.

In Congo’s capital Kinshasa, 10 million people will go under lockdown on Saturday, but the scheme will be relaxed for 48 hours after just four days.

On Friday, in one part of downtown Johannesburg close to the city’s townships, Reuters saw police sweep up 300 homeless people to take them to a shelter while crowds gathered to try to buy groceries or just walk down the streets.

In Alexandra, local broadcaster eNCA showed pictures of bustling streets and long queues outside supermarkets.

Ramaphosa on Thursday lobbied richer countries to help cushion the blow to Africa from a pandemic has killed over 21,000 people globally and devastated supply chains. [L8N2BJ4EZ]

Already struggling, South Africa’s economy appears particularly vulnerable to its effects.

Its rand lost 1.3% against the dollar following the news of the rise in cases and first deaths.

Even before the coronavirus, South Africa was mired in recession caused mostly by power cuts at its dysfunctional state-run utility, Eskom.

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

State logistics firm Transnet said on Friday it would scale down non-essential cargo operations.

Only Moody’s is keeping South Africa’s credit rating above junk, and it is expected to cut to below investment grade on Friday.

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

But unemployment is at a decade high of some 30 percent, and ailing state companies have already bled billions of rand from the treasury.

“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 now,” Charles Robertson, global chief economist at Renaissance Capital, said, adding that it might be wise for Ramaphosa to seek an IMF package.

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