JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - South Africans woke up under lockdown on Friday, struggling to adapt to some of the toughest restrictions in the world as the country recorded its first coronavirus deaths and confirmed cases rose above 1,000.
The 21-day lockdown came into force at midnight. It confines people to their homes for most activities including exercise, only permitting trips outside for specific purposes like buying food or for health emergencies.
With shops, restaurants and offices shuttered, streets in more affluent parts of Johannesburg appeared quieter than usual on Friday.
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 economic fallout the epidemic is causing.
“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 kilometres (620 miles) to the southwest, while total cases rose above 1,000 from 927 on Thursday, the health ministry said.
That makes Africa’s most industrialised nation an epicentre of the outbreak on the continent, where 3,212 people have been infected overall, of whom 84 have died.
President Cyril Ramaphosa, who took a virus test that came back negative on Wednesday, has been praised for ordering some of the toughest measures on the continent - including calling out the army to enforce the lockdown and criminalising deliberately spreading false information.
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 of people gathered to try to buy groceries or just amble on the streets.
In Alexandra, local broadcaster eNCA showed pictures of bustling streets and long queues outside supermarkets.
Ramaphosa, at a virtual G20 meeting, 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 the outbreak’s effects.
Its rand currency 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 and falling industrial output 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, which will hit gold, chrome and manganese, although platinum group metal output will continue.
South Africa’s port are also shut, interrupting global copper supplies, as are its airports.
The country’s investment grade credit rating has hung in the balance, with only Moody’s keeping it above junk, unemployment is at a decade high of some 30 percent, and ailing state companies have bled billions of rand from the treasury.
The central bank started an unprecedented bond-buying exercise this week to try to ease a liquidity crunch, while Ramaphosa announced measures aimed at helping small businesses..
“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.
Reporting by Emma Rumney and Tim Cocks; editing by John Stonestreet