South Africa has followed suit: the country’s president has announced a total lockdown of 21 days, which started from midnight Thursday night during which citizens will only be allowed to leave home for emergencies and food, and international arrivals will be turned away.

Many in the fresh produce industry tell FreshPlaza that they are heartened by the government’s swift action, coming while South Africa is still behind the curve to other countries. In his widely broadcast message to the nation, Pres Cyril Ramaphosa said: “In South Africa, the number of confirmed cases has increased six-fold in just eight days from 61 cases to 402 cases. This number will continue to rise.”

“We have to flatten the curve to stop a large-scale catastrophe in South Africa,” says Omri van Zyl, Agri SA’s executive director. “The 21-day lockdown will have a massive impact on the economy, but it remains imperative that essential services remain intact.”

“Our government is taking the right measures at the right time and we congratulate and support them,” says Hannes de Waal, managing director of the Sundays River Citrus Company, adding that last week already the Eastern Cape premier mentioned the introduction of road blocks to restrict movement across provincial borders.

The citrus harvest has started in the Eastern Cape and harbours remain open. Fruit harvesting and packing continue for foreseeable future. “It’s a tragedy unfolding before us. All we can do is to try and control the disease as quickly as possible. At least we can continue with getting the harvest off and for that we’re grateful. We’re charting a way forward, looking at other countries. We’re very concerned about our staff and we’ve stopped receiving international visitors two weeks ago. We have strict control even on local visitors. We’re very cautious.”

He says that the SRCC, like everyone in the industry, is currently trying to procure scanners and face masks for their staff, as part of measures to intensify safety in the workplace.

Food production, distribution and supply are essential services and exempted from the lockdown, but at fresh produce markets there is much uncertainty on how much traffic will be allowed on the market floor.

Some crucial activities like harvesting and packing can’t be done off-site. Packhouses are working out what the concept of ‘social distancing’ might mean in that context.

A dominant producer of both vegetables and fruit have gone into financial lockdown, cutting costs to the bone, while another big citrus company declined to comment, saying all their energy is going into figuring out how they are going to get through the next three weeks.

Apple volumes are normally higher from March onwards, but the market received a lot of apples over the weekend which is an big concern in a market with a weak demand.

“Demand usually picks up closer to Easter but this year could be totally different as many buyers currently wait to see how their businesses will be able to continue under the lockdown.”

“It’s a big concern for us, this increase in volumes while demand slows down. At least apples can be rebinned and sent to CA rooms, but for the last stonefruit it’s a big problem – the fruit need a home. Traditionally at the end of the stonefruit season the Rand/kg is on an upward curve.”

“Twenty-one days – it’s not that long if you look at human history,” Hannes says. “If you look at how the world was built up after the first world war and after the second world war. People are resourceful and technology is advanced. We’ll get over this.”

The president continued: “The next few days are crucial. Without decisive action, the number of people infected will rapidly increase from a few hundred to tens of thousands, and within a few weeks to hundreds of thousands. This is extremely dangerous for a population like ours, with a large number of people with suppressed immunity because of HIV and TB [tuberculosis], and high levels of poverty and malnutrition.”

UNAids puts the number of HIV-positive South Africans at 7.7 million.