JOHANNESBURG (AP) — A shaken South Africa yesterday announced its first two deaths from the COVID-19 as the country’s cases rose above 1,000 and a three-week lockdown began, with some police screaming at the homeless on emptying streets.
The Health Minister said the deaths occurred in Western Cape province, home of Cape Town. South Africa has the most virus cases in Africa, with the total across the continent now above 3,200.
Security forces with megaphones screamed at people on the streets shortly after midnight in downtown Johannesburg, the country’s commercial hub. Homeless people scattered, looking for places to shelter, to the astonishment of residents who lined up on balconies and filmed the patrols with their mobile phones. One baton-wielding officer took chase.
Some motorists were pursued, stopped and searched.
“Go home,” security forces shouted. “You cannot be outside. You are so selfish.” Around 3am, sustained gunfire echoed through the streets.
After daybreak, police and military forces again surrounded a few dozen homeless people in downtown Johannesburg close to the main train station.
The risk of abuses was a concern. In Rwanda, which imposed a lockdown over the weekend, police have denied that two people shot dead last Monday were killed for defying the new measures.
South Africa President Cyril Ramaphosa, in full military uniform, on the eve of the lockdown told troops to be a “force of kindness” and reminded police that “our people are terrified right now and we should not do anything to make their situation worse”.
South Africans are meant to go outside only to obtain essentials such as groceries or medical care or to provide essential services. Public transport operates only during the usual rush hours, but complaints were reported of being charged double the price.
“We are putting our lives at risk,” one commuting worker told The Associated Press, saying they had little choice. “Please pray for us that are still working.”
Minibus taxis were sprayed with disinfectant before passengers boarded, leaving spaces between them, some wiping their hands.
Some shoppers ignored calls to keep at least a metre apart, jostling, as about 200 people lined up outside a centre in Vosloorus, a township east of Johannesburg.
Some people were openly scared. One caller to a popular morning radio talk show dissolved into tears, “I feel there’s nothing we can do,” he said.