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Amid the risk of COVID-19 transmission in Zambia, some practices just have to change

By Charles Nonde, Public Information Assistant

As at 3 April 2020, Zambia had recorded a total of 39 confirmed cases of COVID-19 with Lusaka, the capital city accounting for 36. While the number of cases might appear low in comparison to other countries on the continent and the world at large, the message from the Government, United Nations and other stakeholders is clear – it is not time to relax!

One underlying issue which is also a threat is the spirit of “Ubuntu” vis-a-vis the ability of people to stay at home, practice physical distancing and cutting non-essential travel. This is a very big challenge. To start with, most of the people depend on public transport, walk in large groups as

Community Volunteers stick COVID-19 posters in Lusaka to encourage behaviour change, posters produced with UN support. Picture courtesy of UNICEF Zambia.

they get to various destinations or the communities in which they live have a very high population density that makes physical distancing a huge challenge. The Government, United Nations and various partners have ramped up support to spread prevention messages to the public through TV, radio and other means including digital platforms. People are encouraged to wash their hands, keep their surroundings clean, practice physical distancing, cut down all non-essential travel, among other measures to stop the spread of COVID-19 that has so far claimed about a million lives globally.

In the wake of all these measures, high density areas, streets and public transport are proving to be high risk settings and a cause of concern. Commuters have raised worry as most of the operators have refused to reduce the number of passengers on their buses to the recommended half capacity stating that they would be running at a loss. They have, instead chosen to adhere to the need to provide water and soap for people to wash their hands before boarding buses.

Another dimension is that many people depend on selling various merchandise on the streets of Lusaka to provide for their families. While the Lusaka City Council announced on 1st April 2020 that it was banning street vending and urged street vendors to move into markets dotted around the city and vending in approved areas which have the necessary measures put in place, the news has not been well received as people are worried about how they would support their families if they cannot go on the streets to trade.

A walk in many peri-urban compound settlements shows that it is ‘business as usual’ as people are continuing with their everyday lives as if there was no COVID-19 outbreak, a direct real threat on their lives. Physical distancing is an alien concept and not being practiced – a very serious concern. Some people wrongly believe that they cannot get the virus because they had not traveled out of the country. Misinformation on social media is also giving way to misdirection and a false sense of security.

The danger of COVID-19 is very clear as noted during the daily briefings by the country’s Health Minister, Dr. Chitalu Chilufya, who has indicated that the disease had now become a local transmission problem, calling on everyone in the country, especially residents of Lusaka, the epic centre, to be vigilant and follow the laid out guidelines by the government and the World Health Organisation (WHO).

One cannot help but wonder what more can be done to encourage communities, traders and public service transporters to ensure that people comply with the government statutory instruments and the WHO guidelines. Among many activities as part of the UN Zambia joint response is a UNICEF- supported song entitled “Together We Can” a collaboration by some of Zambia’s finest artists encouraging people to wash their hands and practice physical distancing, among other preventative measures to help prevent the spread of the corona-virus.

As stated by Antonio Guterres, UN Secretary General “We are in this together” hence the need for all of us to play our part and ensure the safety of our families, communities and the world at large is safe guarded by doing our part in flattening the curve.