South Africa has started a nationwide military-patrolled lockdown, joining other African countries which have imposed strict curfews and shutdowns in an attempt to halt the spread of the coronavirus.
Some 57 million people are restricted to their homes during South Africa’s three-week total lockdown which began on Friday.
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During the shutdown, there will be no jogging, dog-walking or sale of alcohol across the country, which so far has the highest number of detected infections in sub-Saharan Africa at more than 1,000, with two deaths, announced early on Friday by the health ministry.
Kenya, Rwanda, Mali and Nigeria are among other African countries to impose restrictions to curb transmission of the coronavirus.
Although Africa’s toll is far lower than in Europe, the United States and the Middle East, health experts say the continent is especially vulnerable and the figures may be far short of the reality.
Donning a camouflage uniform complete with a cap, President Cyril Ramaphosa saw off soldiers before they deployed from a military base in the Soweto township outside economic hub Johannesburg.
“I send you out to go and defend our people against coronavirus,” Ramaphosa said.
“This is unprecedented, not only in our democracy but also in the history of our country, that we will have a lockdown for 21 days to go out and wage war against an invisible enemy, coronavirus.”
‘Opportunity to break transmissions’
Al Jazeera’s Fahmida Miller, reporting from Johannesburg, said that South Africans have largely embraced the lockdown.
“South Africans have welcomed this lockdown. They do understand it is necessary,” she said.
“But I imagine that it will take a couple of days for many people to abide by the restrictions because there is a lot to get used to.”
Mosa Moshabela, dean and head of the Nursing and Public Health School at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, said the lockdown “is an opportunity to break transmissions”, referring to a believed 14-day incubation period during which the infection can flare into symptoms.
“With the additional week as a sort of buffer, we can assure that anyone who was infected before the lockdown will go through the symptoms and recover within those 21 days,” he told Al Jazeera.
Earlier, panicky Johannesburg residents stocked up on food, alcohol and other supplies with some large supermarkets running out of eggs and the staple maize meal powder.
Thousands crammed into long-distance bus terminals to escape to the countryside to be with families, raising fears they would transmit the virus to the most vulnerable elderly people who normally live or retire in farms and villages.
South Africa’s Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula warned that “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 a fine.
Two men have already been charged with attempted murder for defying a quarantine order after they tested positive for the coronavirus, exposing others to the infection.