Economic fears as Africa escalates coronavirus response

Philippe SIUBERSKI, with AFP Africa bureaux
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South Africa, the continent's most developed economy -- which at 554 cases has Africa's largest outbreak -- has announced a nationwide lockdown

African nations have ordered curfews and lockdowns in response to the growing coronavirus epidemic, raising fears of turmoil for low-income workers and cash-strapped governments across the continent.

Cases have risen across the world's poorest continent over the past week to a total of 2,137 and 62 deaths, according to an AFP tally, prompting countries to enact strict counter measures.

South Africa, the continent's most developed economy -- which at 554 cases has Africa's largest outbreak -- on Monday announced a nationwide lockdown.

"Without decisive action, the number of people infected will rapidly increase... to hundreds of thousands," South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said at the time.

There are fears that weak health infrastructure in Africa will leave the continent particularly exposed to an outbreak on the scale of virus-stricken Europe.

Other countries are following suit with similar measures. More are expected to be announced in the coming days.

On Monday, Senegal and Ivory Coast both declared states of emergency and ordered night-time curfews.

Ivory Coast on Tuesday said it had recorded 73 coronavirus cases and would lock areas down progressively, depending on how the virus spreads.

Senegal has recorded 86 coronavirus cases, its health ministry said on Tuesday.

- Ivory Coast PM in self-isolation -

In a sign of coronavirus' increasing reach, Ivory Coast's Prime Minister Amadou Gon Coulibaly said on Twitter on Tuesday that he was in a self-isolation after coming into contact with a positive case.

As the virus spreads, there are also fears that poor and debt-saddled countries will be unable to provide an adequate response.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed on Tuesday asked G20 leaders for $150 billion in emergency funding to deal with the coronavirus, saying it "poses an existential threat" to the economies of African countries.

He added that creditors should partly write off national debt for low-income countries.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told France's parliament on Tuesday that there would be a European financial aid package for poor countries fighting the virus.

"I'm thinking in particular about Africa," he said.

The Arab Bank for Economic Development in Africa announced that it was allocating $100 million to help sub-Saharan Africa deal with the crisis.

-'How do we pay the rent?'-

Adopting lockdowns and social distancing measures in poor African nations is also generating economic worries at the local level.

Homes are often overcrowded, and workers in the informal economy cannot self-isolate at home without abandoning their livelihoods.

Matshidiso Moeti, the World Health Organization's regional director for Africa, admitted these difficulties in a briefing with reporters last week.

She said such measures were "quite a challenge" and that the WHO was working on other approaches such as making hand sanitisers more widely available.

Locals are increasingly concerned as containment measures bite.

"They're closing down the stalls, the restaurants, but how are we supposed to feed our families?" asked Nemy Fery, who runs a street-food stall in Abidjan, Ivory Coast's main city.

He added that he would try selling takeaway meals -- and look for another job.

There are similar concerns in Muslim-majority Senegal, where the authorities were already struggling last week to enforce a ban on praying in mosques.

Sabah Amar, who works in a souvenir shop, said Senegalese people "will die of hunger" before they succumb to coronavirus.

Several people interviewed by AFP in Dakar nonetheless said they supported the government's coronavirus measures.

"I prefer that everything closes. We're not selling anything anyway," said Amar. "Otherwise we're all going to die."

In the north of the continent, Egyptian Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouli on Tuesday announced a two-week night-time curfew.

And in the east, cases have doubled in Rwanda, to 36, while South Sudan has closed its air and land borders, except for food and fuel supplies.

- Rising cases -

Niger announced its first coronavirus fatality on Tuesday, as did the archipelago nation of Cape Verde after a 62-year-old British tourist died.

Cameroon also recorded its first death -- a man who had contracted the disease in Italy and tested positive on March 14, according to Health Minister Manachi Manaouda.

Four people have died in Burkina Faso, which is West Africa's worst-hit country with 115 confirmed cases.

Countries that have announced strict containment measures are turning to the army to enforce them.

Military patrols in Senegal will ensure people respect the dusk-to-dawn curfew, for example.

South Africa's president has also said the army will enforce his country's lockdown.

Nombulelo Tyokolo, 41, a domestic worker in Cape Town, who shares a one-bedroom shack with her son, told AFP she was worried about how the lockdown will work.

"I am scared, worried and panicking about 21 days indoors," she said.

"We have to fetch water outside and go outside to the toilets. God have mercy."