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 whacking people with batons.
Virus prevention measures have taken a violent turn in parts of Africa, as countries impose lockdowns and curfews or seal off major cities.
Health experts say that the virus’ spread, although still at an early stage, resembles the arc seen in Europe, adding to widespread anxiety.
Cases across Africa were set to climb above 4,000 late 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 downtown Johannesburg and went after some with batons.
Some citizens reported that police used rubber bullets.
Fifty-five people across the country were arrested.
South Africa has more than 1,000 cases, the highest number on the continent.
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 denied that two civilians shot dead on Monday were killed for defying the new measures, saying that the men attacked an officer after being stopped.
Meanwhile, Zimbabwe, where police are widely criticized by human rights groups for deadly crackdowns, is set to enter a three-week lockdown today.
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 the actions of police was 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 issued 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 caused hundreds of people trying to reach a ferry in the port city of Mombasa ahead of the overnight 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.
“I am appealing to our people to make it very unnecessary for them to engage with police by staying at home,” Kenyan Cabinet Secretary for Health Mutahi Kagwe said in a statement. “I am also urging the police that people must be treated humanely.”
The country has 38 virus cases.
The Kenyan Ministry of Interior and Coordination of National Government on Saturday replied to 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.”
Kenya’s government has not said how many have been arrested.
As courts are also affected by virus prevention measures, all but serious cases would be dealt with at police stations, the government has said.
That means anyone who is detained for breaching curfew faces time in crowded cells.
The Law Society of Kenya would go to court to challenge the curfew on the grounds that it is unconstitutional and has been abused by police, law society president Nelson Havi said in a statement.
The penalty for breaking a curfew is not corporal punishment, he added.
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