South Africa now has the highest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases on the African continent at more than 1,000. At midnight on Thursday, March 26, the country went into full lockdown. The majority of South Africa’s 59 million residents were ordered to remain home over the next three weeks, with exceptions for “essential” services.
With one confirmed death so far, South Africa’s lockdown is one of the most severe measures put in place on the continent. Ahead of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s announcement of the lockdown on March 24, South Africans were already stockpiling essential foods, toiletries, tobacco and alcohol. One of the more controversial aspects of the lockdown is the ban on sales of cigarettes and alcohol, leading to massive queues outside convenience stores. South Africa’s economy is also likely to take a much harder hit during the lockdown, as its largest trading partner, China, is still recovering from its outbreak and has drastically curbed trade with Africa to halt the spread of the virus.
Why It Matters
In one of the most unequal societies in the world, the lockdown may not have the same preventative measure as hoped. Millions of South Africans live in cramped townships, where they are forced into close proximity to gather water or use public latrines, undermining WHO guidelines calling for social distancing. Access to clean water is also problem for South Africa’s poorest residents, amid a pandemic where washing hands and staying hydrated are key preventative measures. Finally, there’s the reality that many South Africans work in the informal economy and may not be able to work from home or afford to lose out on employment for three weeks.
The fact that South Africa has the highest number of known cases indicates a worrying possibility for the rest of Africa. The continent’s more industrialized nations such as South Africa, Egypt, and Algeria have the highest reported number of confirmed infections, but they also have the infrastructure and capacity to test large numbers of people. Could the lower figures for some African countries be grossly understating the actual number of infected? If that were the case, the pandemic could become far more debilitating for Africa in the coming months.