By Alexander Winning and Olivia Kumwenda-Mtambo
JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) – South African businesses braced for a nationwide lockdown and panic buyers stockpiled food and other essentials on Tuesday as the number of confirmed coronavirus cases jumped to 554 from 402 a day earlier.
President Cyril Ramaphosa announced the 21-day lockdown from midnight on Thursday in an address to the nation on Monday, saying Africa’s most advanced economy needed to escalate its response to curb the spread of the respiratory pandemic.
South Africa has the highest number of confirmed coronavirus cases in sub-Saharan Africa, and public health experts are worried that the virus could overwhelm the health system if infection rates rise steeply.
Ramaphosa deployed the army in the streets, ordered underground mines to suspend operations and confined tourists who had arrived recently from “high-risk” countries to their hotels – some of the toughest measures on the continent.
Rwanda has also imposed severe restrictions on movement, including “non-essential movements outside the home”.
Many analysts have praised Ramaphosa for acting swiftly to impose restrictions on movement before the virus has claimed any lives, drawing on the experience of badly affected countries in Europe and Asia.
“The numbers, we mustn’t be shocked when we see them increase. But these measures if we all work together must turn the curve around,” said Health Minister Zweli Mkhize, adding that two patients were in intensive care.
Mkhize said South Africa could reach a turning point in its infection curve two or three weeks after its lockdown restrictions enter into force.
Unlike developed economies, South Africa hasn’t promised massive fiscal stimulus to cushion the blow from the coronavirus, partly because it has limited room for new spending as it battles to preserve its last investment-grade credit rating.
“We will have to use all what’s possible in terms of reprioritisation to address the current challenges,” senior finance ministry official Dondo Mogajane said on Tuesday.
The lockdown will pile added pressure on an economy that is already in recession and where roughly 30% of the population is unemployed. Many business owners are worried, despite a handful of support measures like tax subsidies announced by Ramaphosa. Kristalia Syrrafos, the 31-year-old owner and founder of the Tilt cafe in Johannesburg’s Melville district, said she expected a “real big knock”.
“You can’t prepare…We’ll get as much food out of here as possible and then close our doors,” she said.
Across town, people ignored government pleas to stop hoarding basic goods.
“I was expecting this shutdown, so I already bought quite a lot of things,” Patience Khumalo, 35, a retired security company manager who now drives an Uber, said while loading up his trolley with oil, peppers and rice.
“The president made a good move to stop infections early, but some people are going to suffer.”
Johannesburg-listed companies have started taking emergency measures to cut costs and minimise expenditure.
Aviation company Comair suspended all its flights for franchise partner British Airways and the kulula.com low-cost airline from Thursday until April 19.
Tsogo Sun Gaming said its casinos would be closed by Wednesday, and packaging firm Mpact postponed paying a dividend.
(Additional reporting by Helen Reid, Tim Cocks, Emma Rumney and Nqobile Dludla in Johannesbug and Clement Uwiringiyimana in Kigali; Editing by Mark Heinrich)