Chaos and violence arose on the first day of lockdowns and curfews across Africa after some countries imposed strict measures to prevent the spread of coronavirus COVID-19. Abuses of the new measures by authorities are an immediate concern.
Health experts say the virus’ spread, though still at an early stage, resembles the pattern seen in Europe, adding to widespread anxiety. Cases across Africa were set to climb above 4,000 on Saturday.
Police fired tear gas at a crowd of Kenyan ferry commuters as the country’s first day of a coronavirus curfew slid into chaos. Elsewhere, officers were captured in mobile phone footage hitting people with batons.
Minutes after South Africa’s three-week lockdown began Friday, police screamed at homeless people in downtown Johannesburg and went after some with batons. Some citizens reported the police use of rubber bullets. Fifty-five people across the country were arrested.
In an apparent show of force on Saturday, South Africa’s military raided a large workers’ hostel in the Alexandra township where some residents had defied the lockdown.
In Rwanda, the first country in sub-Saharan Africa to impose a lockdown, police have denied that two civilians shot dead Monday were killed for defying the new measures, saying the men attacked an officer after being stopped.
Zimbabwe, where police are widely criticized by human rights groups for deadly crackdowns, is set to enter a three-week lockdown on Monday. The country’s handful of virus cases already threatens to overwhelm one of the world’s most fragile health systems.
In Kenya, outrage over the actions of police arose swiftly.
“We were horrified by excessive use of police force” ahead of the curfew that began Friday night, Amnesty International Kenya and 19 other human rights groups said in a statement issued Saturday. “We continue to receive testimonies from victims, eyewitnesses and video footage showing police gleefully assaulting members of the public in other parts of the country.”
The tear gas caused hundreds of people trying to reach a ferry in the port city of Mombasa ahead of the curfew to touch their faces as they vomited, spat and wiped away tears, increasing the chance of the virus’ spread, the rights groups said.
Even some health workers reported being intimidated by police officers as they tried to provide services after the curfew, the statement added.
Kenya’s interior ministry on Saturday replied to the criticism in a statement saying that the curfew “is meant to guard against an apparent threat to public health. Breaking it is not only irresponsible but also puts others in harm’s way.”
If Kenya goes further and imposes a lockdown, “there is bound to be violence,” said James Shikwati, an economist.
People in poor neighbourhoods of cities like the capital, Nairobi, will need a way to access food, water and sanitation, Shikwati said.
“It will mean for the first day, maybe, they stay indoors. Then the second day, when they are hungry, they will move out,” he said. (Source: Mainichi Japan)