African countries led by Nigeria and South Africa on Thursday ramped up action against coronavirus, a day after the continent recorded its first fatality from the disease and the UN's health chief warned it was time to "wake up" to the threat.
Nigeria said it would shut schools and limit religious meetings in its economic hub Lagos and capital Abuja, while South Africa, the continent's most industrialised economy, slashed a key interest rate to help shore up business.
"After consulting with our healthcare professionals over COVID-19, we are closing down schools and limiting religious gathering," Lagos state governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu said.
"We are limiting gatherings and events to no more than 50 people and appropriate social distancing must be observed."
The state government said schools in the city of some 20 million people would be shut from Monday. It said there was now "local transmission" of the virus in the city.
Ogun state neighbouring Lagos and regions in the northwest of the country introduced similar measures.
Africa's most populous nation -- home to around 200 million people -- has so far recorded just 12 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and is following other countries on the continent in ratcheting up its response.
Imposing the new restrictions on the chaotic and overcrowded streets of Lagos will be a major challenge for the authorities.
The city is home to so-called "megachurches" where thousands of worshippers typically gather each weekend for services.
- 'Wake up' warning -
Africa has been slow in experiencing the spread of the coronavirus compared to the Middle East and Europe.
It has notched up little more than 700 out of the nearly quarter-million cases worldwide, according to a tally compiled by AFP. The figure comprises North and sub-Saharan Africa.
But health specialists say the continent is a potential breeding ground for the virus, given poor sanitation, poverty, urban over-crowding and creaking medical systems.
World Health Organization (WHO) chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on Wednesday urged Africa to "wake up" and warned the official numbers likely did not reflect the full picture.
"Probably we have undetected cases or unreported cases," he said.
- SA slashes interest rate -
In South Africa, the central bank on Thursday cut its main interest rate by a full percentage point to 5.25 percent to try to bolster its already battered economy.
The outlook "remains fragile", Lesetja Kganyago, governor of the South African Reserve Bank, warned.
The bank said there could be economic contraction of 0.2 percent this year but cautioned "significant uncertainty" clouded forecasts given the impact of the virus.
Separately, the government declared it would erect or repair 40 kilometres (25 miles) of fence on its border with Zimbabwe to help tamp viral spread.
"This is to ensure that no undocumented or infected persons cross into the country and vice-versa," said Public Works Minister Patricia de Lille.
- West Africa clampdown -
In West Africa, Mauritania, which has already closed its airports to flights to and from foreign destinations and shuttered its schools, announced a nightime curfew, from 8pm to 6am, with immediate effect.
Sierra Leone said it would suspend all flights incoming and outgoing from Saturday until further notice.
The former British colony was badly hit by the 2014-2016 West Africa Ebola outbreak, which killed almost 4,000 people in the country.
Senegal, however, authorised six exceptional flights by Air France and Air Senegal to pick up stranded travellers in Dakar and fly them to Paris, the French embassy said.
Despite deepening concern in the region, Mali said a much-delayed parliamentary poll -- whose first round is due to take place on March 29, with a runoff on April 19 -- will take place as scheduled.
The elections have been postponed several times since 2018 because of jihadist violence.
- Sahel spread -
On Wednesday, Burkina Faso said it had recorded the death of a 62-year-old female legislator with diabetes -- sub-Saharan Africa's first fatality from the new virus.
The number of detected cases rose on Thursday to 35 from 27 a day earlier, the national coordinator for the fight against coronavirus, Martial Ouedraogo, said Thursday.
"The spread is in peaks and troughs," Ouedraogo said.
Also in the Sahel region, Chad said it had recorded its first case -- a Moroccan man in his thirties who had returned on Sunday to Chad, his country of residence, after spending five days in the Cameroonian city of Douala.
- Appeal for tolerance -
In East Africa, Ethiopian Prime Minister and Nobel laureate Abiy Ahmed urged citizens not to discriminate against nationalities in the fear over the virus.
"Everyone is equally at risk," Abiy said.
"Prevention efforts need not be a barrier to our humanity and disposition for compassion. As a global community, we are each other's keepers. Let us not let fear rob us of our humanity."
The US embassy issued a security alert saying it had received reports that "foreigners have been attacked with stones, denied transportation services... being spat on, chased on foot, and been accused of being infected with COVID-19."