We can’t afford to stay away: Africa carries on despite Covid-19 crisis

2020-03-22 17:17

Shoppers threaded their way between stalls hawking everything from watches to pigs’ feet in Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown, this week, two days after the government banned large gatherings to combat the Covid-19 coronavirus, but exempted markets such as this.

Buyers and sellers at the Abacha Street market said they could not afford to stay away – they depend on the market for their daily food and wages.

A growing number of African countries are announcing increasingly restrictive measures to try to halt the spread of the virus, which has infected more than 200 000 people globally and killed more than 10 000. They have shut borders, closed schools and universities and barred large public gatherings.

Uganda banned religious gatherings and weddings, despite not having a single Covid-19 case.

South Africa strongly encouraged restaurants and bars to provide take-out services only.

Sierra Leone, despite not having a reported infection, banned gatherings of more than 100 people on Monday. Markets that draw thousands of people were exempt.

“We don’t have this virus here yet, so why should we stop?” said Abacha soap vendor Adama Jalloh. A baby dozed against the back of her traditional print dress.

“Even during Ebola time we were able to sell,” she said, referring to a deadly outbreak that killed thousands in West Africa from 2013 to 2016.

Africa has felt the effect of Covid-19 more slowly than in Asia and Europe. But 33 African nations have now reported more than 600 cases, with 17 deaths, according to the World Health Organisation. Its director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus advised African countries on Wednesday to avoid mass gatherings and “wake up” to the growing threat.


Also on Wednesday, Kenya – which has seven cases – announced that anyone entering the country who failed to observe the required 14 days of self-isolation would be arrested. But there’s no system for monitoring new arrivals and some have flouted the rules.

A Kenyan legislator who turned up in Parliament this week was forced out by cries of “quarantine! quarantine!” after another legislator pointed out he’d recently arrived from London.

In South Africa, which by Saturday had 204 cases – more than any other sub-Saharan nation – a family that tested positive for the virus refused to go into quarantine this week, forcing officials to get a court order.

Read: Virus havoc: No time to wait, says Treasury, as infection rate spikes

“Patients who are tested positive for the Covid-19, are required to stay [in quarantine]. Not only for their safety, but also for the safety of others,” said Kwara Kekana, spokesperson for Gauteng’s health department.

Some Africans have found the measures draconian.

I don’t feel safe in a minibus taxi, but I don’t have a choice.
Joburg commuter

In western Ivory Coast, which has six Covid-19 cases and no deaths, some people said it was “a bit much” when the government told them to keep 1 metre apart and wash their hands rigorously.

“People are exaggerating a bit. The disease hasn’t really spread far here and they’re scaring us by telling us not to greet and to wear masks,” said Namory Doumbia, a 28-year-old chauffeur.

Bans on large gatherings are sometimes selectively applied, confusing citizens. Senegal, a mostly Muslim West African country, cancelled religious festivals five days ago, but initially spared Islamic prayers.

“We cannot forbid religious gatherings,” said Mbackiou Faye, a representative of Senegal’s powerful Mouride Muslim brotherhood. “It is with our prayers and our incantations that God answers them and spares us from diseases,” he said.

Late on Wednesday, Senegal – which has 36 cases – ordered both churches and mosques to close. But they remained open in other nations, such as Burkina Faso, where hundreds prayed together in one of the capital’s largest mosques.

Both Kenya and South Africa have directed public minibuses that provide transport to millions of people to provide passengers with hand sanitisers. Checks by Reuters revealed that few had done so.

Passengers at a busy minibus rank in Johannesburg’s financial centre said they lived too far from their jobs to walk and there was no other transportation.

“I don’t feel safe in the [minibus] taxi,” said 29-year-old Lerato Sibandi, who has to travel to her retail job, “but I don’t have a choice.”  Reuters

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March 29 2020