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A man wears a mask and gloves as a preventive measure in Johannesburg, South Africa, on March 18, 2020.MICHELE SPATARI/AFP/Getty Images

In the midst of its novel coronavirus crisis, the South African government is allocating $3.1-million to build 40 kilometres of fence on its border with Zimbabwe. It says the fence will prevent any “infected persons” from entering the country – even though Zimbabwe has no confirmed cases of the virus.

Fences, both real and metaphorical, are rising fast at borders across Africa, and even within countries. There have been widespread border closings, travel bans and flight shutdowns, but the COVID-19 pandemic is also creating barriers of discrimination and hostility among people of different ethnicities, social class or nationality.

In Africa, the virus is often seen as a foreign import, spread by visitors from Europe or Asia, or by wealthy locals who travelled to those regions and brought the virus home with them. The result has been a wave of xenophobia and racial prejudice in some countries.

So far, more than 730 confirmed cases of the coronavirus have been reported in 34 countries across Africa, and the number has been expanding swiftly. Most cases at first were imported, but now there have been cases of local transmission in at least 14 African countries.

Africa, of course, is far from the only region of the world where the coronavirus crisis is triggering racism and social tension. The attacks in Africa are unique only in that they are targeting groups that are usually seen as privileged or relatively affluent.

In Ethiopia, there are growing reports of violence against foreigners. The U.S. embassy in Ethiopia issued a warning this week, describing a “rise in anti-foreigner sentiment” and a number of incidents of harassment and assault of foreigners in Ethiopia, directly related to COVID-19.

“Reports indicate that foreigners have been attacked with stones, denied transportation services (taxis, etc), been spat on, chased on foot, and been accused of being infected with COVID-19,” the U.S. embassy statement said.

It urged U.S. citizens in Ethiopia to avoid walking alone and to lock the doors of their cars.

Journalists in Ethiopia have reported that some residents have begun calling foreigners “corona,” while others are attacking foreigners on social media by publishing photos of them and linking them to the coronavirus.

The Foreign Correspondents Association of Ethiopia, in a statement this week, warned that “dangerous rumours” and “vicious posts” are being spread on the internet about foreign journalists, while other foreigners have been physically attacked. It advised journalists to be cautious.

In Kenya, a video showed a large crowd of people bullying an Asian man and woman in a Nairobi neighbourhood. “You are coronavirus, you are coronavirus,” people in the crowd yelled at them.

A Kenyan member of parliament, in a Facebook message last month, said his constituents had the right to stone and chase away any Chinese visitors who were not quarantined.

In South Africa, a tour bus of white visitors in downtown Johannesburg last weekend was repeatedly heckled with “corona, corona” shouts by local residents. On social media, some South Africans have claimed that the virus is being imported by “rich white people” – a sentiment that could fuel social tension as the COVID-19 crisis continues to escalate in the country, with about 200 cases confirmed so far.

South Africa’s third-biggest political party, the Economic Freedom Fighters, called for a ban on all travel to the country from “coronavirus-infected countries, in particular Europe” – and demanded that anyone who tested positive for the virus should be quarantined at Robben Island, the island where anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela was imprisoned.

Eusebius McKaiser, a prominent South African writer and broadcaster, says he has heard frequent comments that COVID-19 is “not serious in South Africa but is mostly a virus that is affecting white Europeans and China.” The subtext of these comments, he said, is that the virus is “payback” to the Global North “for the histories of colonialism and racism.”

In reality, COVID-19 is likely to have a disproportionate impact on the poor and vulnerable in South Africa, because of underlying chronic diseases such as HIV that could make it difficult for them to fight off the virus, Mr. McKaiser wrote in an essay in the Mail & Guardian newspaper in South Africa this week.

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