Africans wonder about coronavirus restrictions

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Shoppers thread between stalls hawking everything from watches to pigs’ feet in Sierra Leone’s capital two days after government banned large gatherings to combat the coronavirus but exempted markets.

Buyers and sellers at Abacha market say they cannot afford to stay away. They depend on it for daily food and wages.

A growing number of African countries announced increasingly restrictive measures to halt the spread of the virus, which has infected more than 200 000 people globally and killed nearly 9 000. Borders are shut, schools and universities are closed and large public gatherings are barred.

On Wednesday, Uganda banned religious gatherings and weddings, despite not having a single coronavirus case. South Africa encouraged restaurants and bars to provide take-out services only.

Sierra Leone, with zero reported infections, banned gatherings of more than 100 people on Monday. Markets drawing thousands are exempt.

“We don’t have this virus here, so why should we stop?” said Abacha soap vendor Adama Jalloh.

“Even during Ebola time we were able to sell,” she said, referring to a deadly outbreak that killed thousands in West Africa in 2013-16.

Africa was slower to feel the impact than Asia or Europe. Thirty-one African nations have now recorded cases, with 13 reported deaths. The World Health Organisation (WHO) advised African countries to avoid mass gatherings and “wake up” to the growing threat.

PATIENTS ON THE RUN

On Wednesday, Kenya – with seven cases – announced anyone entering the country and failing to observe the required 14 days of self-isolation would be arrested. But there’s no system for monitoring new arrivals and some flout the rules.

A Kenyan legislator who arrived at parliament this week was forced out by cries of “quarantine! quarantine!” after another lawmaker pointed out he’d recently arrived from London.

In South Africa, with 116 cases more than any other sub-Saharan nation, a family testing positive for the virus refused to go into quarantine, forcing officials to get a court order.

“Patients who are tested positive for the COVID-19 virus are required to stay (in quarantine). Not for their safety, but for the safety of others,” said Kwara Kekana, spokeswoman for the Gauteng provincial health department.

Some Africans find the measures draconian.

In western Ivory Coast, which has six coronavirus cases and no deaths, some people thought it a bit much when government told them to keep a metre apart and wash  hands rigorously.

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

Bans on large gatherings are 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 God answers and spares us from diseases.”

On Wednesday, Senegal – with 36 cases – ordered churches and mosques closed. They remained open in other countries including Burkina Faso, where hundreds prayed together in one of the capital’s largest mosques.

Kenya and South Africa directed minibuses providing transport to millions to provide passengers with hand sanitisers. Checks by Reuters revealed few had done so.

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

“I don’t feel safe in the minibus taxi,” said 29-year-old Lerato Sibandi, who travels to her retail job. “But I don’t have a choice.”