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A man wearing a mask,walks on the street in Tembisa, east of Johannesburg, on March 23, 2020.Themba Hadebe/The Associated Press

After a sharp rise in confirmed COVID-19 cases, the South African government is mobilizing its military to enforce a strict 21-day lockdown on the entire country.

The ban on citizen movement, beginning Thursday night, will become the biggest lockdown on the African continent. And it is being imposed at an earlier stage than in most other countries worldwide that have tried the same strategy.

With about 400 confirmed cases and no deaths so far, South Africa has not been hit as badly by the novel coronavirus as many other countries. But based on global trends and its own projections, the government believes it could see hundreds of thousands of cases in South Africa within a few weeks if nothing is done.

“Swift and extraordinary action is required if we are to prevent a human catastrophe of enormous proportions in our country,” President Cyril Ramaphosa said in a televised speech to the nation on Monday night.

“This is a decisive measure to save millions of South Africans from infection and save the lives of hundreds of thousands of people,” he said.

“While this measure will have a considerable impact on people’s livelihoods, on the life of our society and on our economy, the human cost of delaying this action would be far, far greater.”

Last week, Mr. Ramaphosa banned all social gatherings of more than 100 people and urged people to stay at home. But the voluntary measures worked only sporadically. Many people continued to gather at restaurants and churches, while shops remained open and people continued to commute to work.

Under the new decree, all non-essential workers will be required to stay home, and all shops will be closed, except for pharmacies, supermarkets, banks and a few other categories. People won’t be allowed to leave their homes except for food, medicine or other essential supplies.

South Africa reported its first case of the coronavirus on March 5, but in recent days the number of confirmed cases has been doubling every three days. The number of cases jumped by 47 per cent on Monday, reaching 402 cases – surpassing Egypt for the largest number of confirmed cases on the African continent.

Most cases have been imported by travellers from Europe or North America, but more than a dozen cases of local transmission have been reported.

Mr. Ramaphosa said he has ordered South Africa’s military to be deployed to support the police in enforcing the lockdown. Soldiers were already seen mobilizing at a base in Johannesburg on Monday as they prepared to move out.

Mr. Ramaphosa also announced a package of economic measures to help businesses and workers. Funds will be established to help small businesses and to pay wages to employees of distressed companies. Tax subsidies will be provided to help small- and medium-sized enterprises, and banks are being required to work on debt-relief schemes. Temporary shelters will be identified to help homeless people.

South Africa’s mining industry, the traditional powerhouse of its economy, will be shut down for three weeks. Mines will be placed under care-and-maintenance arrangements.

Mr. Ramaphosa promised that the police would crack down on profiteering by businesses, to prevent unjustified increases in prices.

Many other African countries are taking steps to discourage social gatherings, but few have attempted a lockdown. Morocco and Rwanda were among the first to impose a lockdown, beginning in the past several days.

Across Africa, there are now 1,741 confirmed cases of the virus in 43 countries. Nearly 50 people have died – mostly in Algeria, Egypt, Morocco and Burkina Faso.