Coronavirus cases in South Africa top 700 as country prepares for lockdown

South Africa’s coronavirus cases jumped again to 709, the health minister said Wednesday, as the country with the most cases in Africa prepared to go into lockdown from Friday.

Health Minister Zweli Mkhize on state television pointed out “intense local spread” in Free State province among attendees of a church gathering where five cases were first reported. All five people recently traveled abroad. Now almost 30 cases have been recorded.

Cases across Africa are now well above 2,400. With Mali, Libya and Guinea-Bissau announcing their first, 46 of the continent’s 54 countries now have the virus. The Portuguese news agency Lusa reported the Guinea-Bissau cases, citing the presidency.

Some African leaders have scolded citizens for not adhering to prevention measures.

“Countrymen and women, I have gone ’round the city and I have seen for myself that many among us are not taking this COVID-19 seriously,” Zambian President Edgar Lungu said Wednesday in Lusaka. “I have seen multitudes patronizing bars or freely hugging and shaking hands at funerals, contrary to health advice.” The country has 12 cases.

African countries that have not recorded cases are Sierra Leone, South Sudan, Burundi, Malawi, Botswana, Comoros, Lesotho and Sao Tome and Principe, according to the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Some have the most fragile health systems on the continent.

Congo became the latest to close its borders while reporting its third death. The sprawling nation has one of Africa’s weakest health systems and has been battling another global health emergency, a deadly Ebola virus outbreak in the east. While that outbreak now appears to be within days of being declared over, Congo also faces a large measles outbreak.

As more countries across Africa impose restrictions on gatherings and travel, many informal workers are suffering. Ethiopia’s government in a proposal to the Group of 20 major industrialized nations has said Africa needs a $150 billion emergency financing package because “COVID-19 poses an existential threat to the economies of African countries.”

South Africa already has an unemployment rate of 29% and the lockdown will hit workers hard. But uthorities fear what will happen if the virus sweeps through crowded low-income communities and public transport.

Teeming prisons are another worry across Africa. Ethiopia’s state broadcaster EBC cited the attorney general as saying more than 4,000 prisoners will be released to help stop the coronavirus’ spread. Those include people behind bars for minor offenses and those with children.

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