JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — When the clock struck midnight on Friday, South Africa, Africa’s most industrialized nation, ordered most of its 59 million people to stay at home for three weeks — the biggest and most restrictive action in the African continent to contain the spread of the coronavirus.
The lockdown was precipitated by an alarming increase in confirmed coronavirus cases across the nation’s nine provinces. Three weeks after the first infection was discovered in South Africa, the country is now the epicenter of the outbreak in the continent, with more than 1,000 confirmed cases, double the cases in Egypt.
In Johannesburg, the biggest city, shops and offices were shuttered in observance of the lockdown, announced on Tuesday. A few delivery trucks, minibus taxis and ambulances drove through roads normally clogged with rush-hour traffic.
“People didn’t have enough time to prepare,” said Dineo Mafoho, 25, sitting outside a taxi stand trying to get home to Diepsloot, a township in the city’s outskirts.
As a cleaner, she’s considered essential personnel, and so allowed to be out. Wearing pink lipstick, but not the face mask or gloves that essential workers have been asked to wear, she said she “just can’t get used to it.”
While the deadly virus was slow to take hold across Africa, the number of confirmed coronavirus cases and deaths there has gradually increased in recent days, raising fears about the continent’s readiness to deal with a pandemic.
To date, 46 African states have reported a total of 3,426 positive cases and 94 deaths, according to the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Besides South Africa and Egypt, the countries of Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Burkina Faso, Ghana and Senegal have all reported over 100 cases, mostly imported by visitors from Europe.
So far the virus has spread fastest in some of Africa’s most economically developed countries, like South Africa and Egypt, which have more air connections and commerce with Europe and China, and have the capacity to do the testing to confirm positive cases.
The spike in numbers has pushed other African countries to also undertake strict measures. Kenya, Egypt, and Senegal have imposed overnight curfews; Uganda has restricted visitors from high-risk countries; and Rwanda has banned inter-country travel.
In Zimbabwe, nurses in state hospitals walked off their jobs for lack of protective equipment even as the southern African state was shaken by its first death from the virus, a prominent television journalist.
In Burkina Faso, five government ministers and two ambassadors — including the American ambassador, Andrew Young — tested positive for coronavirus. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, a senior aide to President Felix Tshisekedi died of the virus this week.
South Africa is one of the world’s most unequal societies, with millions of people living in cramped, unhygienic conditions in townships with no clean water or public health care. For many of these people, the lockdown will impose great hardships.
In informal settlements and rural areas, residents usually have to stand close to one another to collect water or queue to use shared latrines, making it difficult to maintain a physical distance, said Alana Potter, director of research and advocacy at the nonprofit Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa.
Also, the vast majority of poor people, she said, generate their livelihoods in an informal economy. Under lockdown, “street vendors can’t trade, which will destroy their livelihoods — and low-income households that rely on vendors for food supply will now have to pay more to access food,” she said.
South Africa also has a significant percentage of its population living with chronic, underlying conditions including H.I.V., tuberculosis, diabetes, and asthma — putting them at risk of developing serious complications from Covid-19.
“South Africa’s medical system is overburdened even in normal times,” said Atiya Mosam, a medical doctor and co-founder of Public Health Action Team, a group of doctors working to improve South Africa’s health care system.
“If the virus spreads like it has in China or Italy or the United States,” she continued, “it’s going to be very difficult for South Africa to respond. We cannot afford that.”
In announcing the lockdown, President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa said the measures were aimed at preventing “a human catastrophe of enormous proportions.” And although he acknowledged that they would affect the South African economy, he said “the human cost of delaying this action would be far, far greater.”
Ronak Gopaldas, director of the Cape Town-based consultancy Signal Risk, said that in general, “Coronavirus will undoubtedly have a contractionary impact on what is a stagnant economy” in South Africa.
The country, he said, will particularly be affected by the economic slowdown in China, the country’s largest trading partner. Diminished demand from China, he said, will likely drive down exports, affecting sectors from mining and manufacturing to tourism.
Across South Africa, people had been bracing for the lockdown. Some had piled shopping carts high with bottles of beer and wine, preparing for a much-debated feature of the lockdown — a ban on the sale of alcohol and tobacco. Anyone defying the ban would face a penalty, the authorities said.
In Johannesburg on Thursday, hours before the lockdown took effect, a line stretched outside Makro, a wholesale store. Tshidi Molubi, a 51-year-old resident of the Soweto neighborhood, joined the queue before the store opened at 9 a.m.
She was laid off from a bank a few months earlier, and said she was using her savings to buy essentials like rice, flour and eggs.
“If you can’t go out, at least we can make a dumpling,” Ms. Molubi said.
Akhona Makasi, a 35-year-old freelancer in the film industry, left Johannesburg on Wednesday to visit her grandparents in the Eastern Cape province. But she said she had rushed home “without calculating the risk.”
Few people wore masks on the journey home and when she used hand sanitizer and disinfected her seat, commuters in the packed bus complained about the smell.
At home, her grandparents refused to self-isolate or ask that visitors sanitize their hands. Villagers gathered for a funeral and slaughtered a cow.
“If I had a basic income, I would have stayed in Johannesburg and self-isolated, not risking my grandparents’ lives,” she said.
Lynsey Chutel reported from Johannesburg, and Abdi Latif Dahir from Nairobi, Kenya. Ruth Maclean contributed reporting from Dakar, Senegal.