HIGH-RISK EXPOSURE

Traders ignore Covid-19 fears to eke out livelihoods

With barely enough cash to meet their daily needs, most residents live hand-to-mouth.

In Summary

• The authorities have urged Kenyans to maintain hygiene and safe social distancing (at least one-and-a-half metres) and initiated a stay-at-home campaign.

• The shocking congestion mess in most places such as Nyamakima increases vulnerability to the infection. 

Business as usual for traders at Wakulima Market on March 25, 2020
Business as usual for traders at Wakulima Market on March 25, 2020
Image: MERCY MUMO

Man must live.

This is what Eric Mwangi, a fast-food seller in a Nairobi street, said in the wake of calls for Kenyans to remain at home as part of efforts to contain Covid-19.

Mwangi has been selling chips for years. His customer base largely comprises travellers. The business guarantees his family food on the table. Hence, he says he cannot close it despite the threats of the virus.

 

Such a predicament reverberates across the city. With barely enough cash to meet their daily needs, most residents live hand-to-mouth. They now find themselves in a catch-22 situation, which exposes the country's soft underbelly in the fight against a virus that threatens the economy and the wellbeing of humanity. Kenya has 25 confirmed cases.

The authorities have urged Kenyans to maintain hygiene and safe social distancing (at least one-and-a-half metres) and initiated a stay-at-home campaign. However, the shocking congestion mess in most places such as Nyamakima increases vulnerability to the infection. Traders have stayed put and are not willing to remain at home.

At Nyamakima, the social distance rule does not apply. There are huge crowds waiting to travel. In some spots, water for cleaning hands has been made available, but many people do not bother to wash their hands.

A similar situation is evident at different locations such as the Country bus terminus, Tea Room and Railway Station. This is despite the fact that most are aware of the threats posed by Covid-19.

"How do you tell someone to stay at home, yet they depend solely on small businesses to have what to eat,” said one of the traders on condition of anonymity.

Just a few metres away is another trader selling maize. Just like Mwangi, he says he has no option but to continue eking out his livelihood to be able to support his family.

Business as usual for traders at Wakulima Market on March 25, 2020
Business as usual for traders at Wakulima Market on March 25, 2020
Image: MERCY MUMO

River Road is no different. The area is full of hawkers and street vendors who flee from county askaris from time to time to escape arrest. Moving along the road is so much hassle that one has to be keen not to lose balance and find himself on the ground. 

 

Beatrice Nyakio, a mother of three, says it is not by choice that she is still on the street. "If we choose to remain indoors, what will our children eat? We are not lucky to be waiting for a month-end salary, so we have to hustle," she said.

Just by observation and listening to conversations between the traders, they are aware of Covid-19 and the disastrous impact it has on society. Nevertheless, staying away from the streets means going to bed on an empty stomach, they say.

As early as three O’clock on a daily basis, Sheila Nyambura sets up carton boxes to sell second-hand dresses along Accra Road. With no sanitiser, Nyambura says she has faith that she will not contract the virus, despite interacting with customers and exchanging clothes for money — a high-risk exposure.

"Children are already at home and expenses are high. I have to make a living and ensure my children are safe and have shelter over their heads and food," she said.

Similarly, at the entrance of the Central Bus station via Ronald Ngala Street, it is business as usual. The one-metre rule on social distancing does not apply as the space available is scarce for traders. The area is dominated by fruit and mitumba (second-hand clothes) vendors.

Prisca, known as Mama Njoki, sells a packet of grapes for Sh200, one Kiw fruit for Sh50 and apple for Sh25.

"If you look at me, I have my one-year-old in my arm and still struggling to sell fruits. I’m scared of the virus but I have to push on so I can afford to buy pampers and milk for my baby," she said.

Last week, the county government announced that hand sanitiser would be provided by inspectorate vehicles where street families would disinfect themselves. However, that has not been the case.

Meanwhile, fumigation has only been done in places with huge numbers of people. Open-air markets, bus stations and public places have been the focus by the Ministry of Health and the county government.

Business as usual for traders at Wakulima Market on March 25, 2020
Business as usual for traders at Wakulima Market on March 25, 2020
Image: MERCY MUMO