Virus prevention measures turn violent in parts of Africa

28 March 2020, 12:44

A soldier watches people who were rounded up in Johannesburg after South Africa went into a nationwide lockdown
Virus Outbreak South Africa. Picture: PA

Health experts said the spread of the virus, though still at an early stage on the continent, resembles that of Europe.

Virus prevention measures have taken a violent turn in parts of Africa as countries impose lockdowns and curfews or seal off major cities.

Police fired tear gas at a crowd of Kenyan ferry commuters as the country’s first day of a curfew slid into chaos.

Elsewhere, officers were captured in mobile phone footage hitting people with batons.

Health experts said the spread of the virus, though still at an early stage on the continent, resembles that of Europe, adding to widespread anxiety.

Kenyan police hold back ferry passengers in Mombasa
Kenyan police hold back ferry passengers in Mombasa (AP)

Cases across Africa were set to jump above 4,000 on Saturday.

Abuses of the new measures by authorities are an immediate concern.

Minutes after South Africa’s three-week lockdown began on Friday, police screamed at homeless people in central Johannesburg and went after some with batons.

Some motorists were pursued, stopped, searched and called “selfish”.

Other citizens reported the police use of rubber bullets.

Fifty-five people across the country were arrested.

South African National Defence Forces patrol the densely populated Alexandra township east of Johannesburg
South African National Defence Forces patrol the densely populated Alexandra township east of Johannesburg (Jerome Delay/AP)

In Rwanda, the first country in sub-Saharan Africa to impose a lockdown, police have denied that two civilians shot dead on Monday were killed for defying the new measures, saying the men attacked an officer after being stopped.

Zimbabwe, where police are widely criticised by human rights groups for deadly crackdowns, will enter a three-week lockdown on Monday as the country’s handful of virus cases already threatens to overwhelm one of the world’s most fragile health systems.

In Kenya, outrage has been swift.

“We were horrified by excessive use of police force” ahead of the curfew that began on Friday night, Amnesty International Kenya and 19 other human rights groups said in a statement on 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.”

Tear gas forced 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’s 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.

Ferry passengers flee from police firing tear gas in Mombasa, Kenya
Ferry passengers flee from police firing tear gas in Mombasa, Kenya (AP)

Kenya’s interior ministry on Saturday replied to the criticism in a statement, saying 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”.

Kenya’s government has not said how many people have been arrested.

Because courts are also affected by the virus prevention measures, all but serious cases will now be dealt with at police stations, the government has said.

That means anyone detained for violating curfew faces time in crowded cells.

The Law Society of Kenya will go to court to challenge the curfew on the grounds that it is unconstitutional and has been abused by police, president Nelson Havi said in a statement.

By Press Association

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