Police fired tear gas at a crowd of Kenyan commuters as the first day of the coronavirus curfew fell into chaos. Elsewhere, police officers were captured on images of mobile phones hitting people with batons.
Virus prevention measures have taken a violent turn in parts of Africa as countries impose restrictions and curfews or isolate major cities. Health experts say the spread of the virus, although still at an early stage, resembles the arc seen in Europe, adding to widespread anxiety. Cases in Africa are expected to exceed 4,000 on Saturday evening.
The authorities’ abuse of the new measures is an immediate concern.
Minutes after the three-week lockout in South Africa began on Friday, police shouted at the homeless in downtown Johannesburg and chased some with batons. Some citizens reported that the police used rubber bullets. Fifty-five people across the country have been arrested. The country is the leader in Africa with more than 1,000 cases.
In an apparent show of force on Saturday, the South African army raided a large workers’ inn in the township of Alexandra where some residents had challenged the lockdown.
In Rwanda, the first country in sub-Saharan Africa to impose a lockdown, police denied that two civilians killed on Monday were killed for defying the new measures, saying the men attacked an officer after being arrested.
And Zimbabwe, where police are widely criticized by human rights groups for their deadly crackdown, is set to enter a three-week lockout on Monday. The handful of cases of the country’s virus are already threatening to overwhelm one of the world’s most fragile health systems.
In Kenya, the outcry over the actions of the police was swift.
“We were horrified by the excessive use of police force” before the curfew which started on Friday evening, Amnesty International Kenya and 19 other human rights groups said in a statement released on Saturday. “We continue to receive testimony from victims, eyewitnesses and video footage of police officers joyfully assaulting members of the public in other parts of the country.”
Tear gas pushed hundreds of people to reach a ferry in the port city of Mombasa before nighttime curfew to touch their faces as they vomited, spat and wiped tears, increasing the risk of spread. of the virus, said advocacy groups. . Even some health workers reported being intimidated while trying to provide services after 7 p.m. curfew.
“People must be treated humanely”
The police actions were unacceptable and “brutal,” said the Justice and Peace Commission of the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops in a separate statement.
“I urge our fellow citizens to ensure that they do not have to be involved with the police while staying at home,” said Mutahi Kagwe, Kenyan secretary of state for health. “I also urge the police to treat people humanely.” The country has 38 cases of virus.
The Kenyan interior ministry responded to criticism on Saturday in a statement saying the curfew “is intended to guard against an apparent threat to public health. Breaking it is not only irresponsible but also puts others in jeopardy danger”.
The government of Kenya has not specified the number of those arrested. Because the courts are also affected by virus prevention measures, all cases, except serious ones, will now be dealt with at police stations, the government said. This means that anyone detained for violating the curfew risks spending time in overcrowded 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 the police, President Nelson Havi said in a statement. The penalty for breaking a curfew is not corporal punishment, he added.
“It is obvious that COVID-19 will be more common by police actions than by those who allegedly violated the curfew,” said Havi.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, which go away within two to three weeks. For some, especially the elderly and people with existing health conditions, this can cause more serious illnesses, including pneumonia and death.
If Kenya goes further and imposes a lockdown, “there will inevitably be violence,” said economist James Shikwati. Residents of poor neighborhoods in cities like the capital, Nairobi, will need a way to access food, water and sanitation.
“It means that for the first day, maybe, they will stay inside,” he said. “Then on the second day, when they’re hungry, they will move out.”