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Markets: Necessary but a weak link in coronavirus fight

By Allan Mungai | April 18th 2020
Traders go on with business as usual as at the Kangemi open-air market along Waiyaki way, Nairobi. [Elvis Ogina/Standard]

From a distance, Kangemi market looks like it exists in a different time. A time before the coronavirus pandemic broke out and forced the world to radically change the way it operates and make wearing masks a necessity and hand-washing and social distancing critical.

A stark contrast to the environment around it, the market along Waiyaki Way is teeming with buyers weaving through the elaborate displays of vegetables and fruits laid out by sellers. A few of the buyers have masks, and the sellers are even fewer.

There are fears, with the low numbers of tests done, the coronavirus could be spreading unchecked in Kenya’s markets. Though the solution for management of the respiratory virus’ spread has left some sectors closing shop and limiting movement, the situation in markets, especially in the city, is more delicate.

Kenya’s food distribution systems are largely informal through markets such as Kangemi, hawkers on the streets and mama mbogas in residential estates. But these markets are also the most vulnerable due to congestion. Additionally, the traders are mostly lower income earners who depend entirely on their business.

For instance, Wakulima Market is the central distribution point. Almost all of the food that will be consumed in the city is traded in Marikiti, as it is commonly known.

Lorries from Tanzania and Uganda ferrying vegetables and fruits all start selling at Wakulima. Here the farmers and middlemen will interact with the wholesale traders and retailers and consumers, creating a web that the Ministry of Health is wary could problem should anyone in the market test positive.

Cyrus Kaguta, a trader and chairperson of Wakulima Traders Association listed a number of measures they have put in place.

"We have soap and water in a small tank for every 10 traders and have sector leaders going around encouraging people to wash their hands and maintain social distance," Kaguta told Saturday Standard.

Traditionally a congested market, the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted food supply, which has the effect of reducing the numbers in the market. Fewer farmers are delivering their produce to the market while the steady current of customers coming to purchase for establishments such as schools and hotels has reduced.

“We have a lot of foot traffic in the market so we are not yet able to check the temperatures of anyone who comes here but we have done everything else that is required of us. We are keeping the social distance and everyone is cleaning their hands,” he said.

But the Ministry of Health does not believe the market traders are doing enough to protect themselves against coronavirus. On Thursday, Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe, dropped his stern voice for a more pleading one. He even switched to Kiswahili so that his message would reach the market traders.

“Those children that you are providing sustenance for will be orphaned if you don’t follow what we are saying,” he said.

Kagwe implored the market traders to follow the safety measures such as wearing masks, distancing, washing hands and sanitising, most of which are being ignored in the bustle of commerce.

“There are two ways you can suffer. One is by not following our directives and getting exposed to the virus. A whole village will come to where you’re selling but you do not have a mask or keeping social distance. If it goes on like that, you will be infected and be sick then you will stop doing the business to support your family,” he said.

The second consequence is more grave - death.  

“You should assume that everyone coming to that market is positive and protect yourself appropriately,” he said. 

Mombasa County has installed sanitising spray booth at Kongowea Market where buyers and traders have to pass through before accessing the market.

Covid 19 Time Series


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