Gender Gender

Failed case of social distancing at Soweto

Gender Focus with Emelda Mwitwa
SOCIAL distancing, a life-saving measure we have come to know in the wake of the global pandemic, COVID-19, is proving to be a challenge at Lusaka’s largest market, Soweto.
Keeping the two-metre safe distance from one another is not possible at Soweto because the place is over-crowed, despite the outbreak of COVID-19 in Zambia.
Well, if in the next few weeks Africa is indeed due to get to the peak of COVID-19, something needs to be done to decongest and sanitise Soweto market.
God forbid, but if as the United Nations has predicted, we happen to see the worst of the coronavirus storm in two to three weeks, we need to address the Soweto market time bomb before it detonates.
It is not just the women and men at the market that will be affected should COVID-19 cases escalate further, but the many people they come in contact with and consumers of food from there.
Despite the rising number of COVID-19 cases in the country, it is business as usual for food handlers at the market.
Here is how it is done. Businessmen who supply farm produce to the market stand neck to neck selling tomatoes, vegetables and groundnuts, among other foodstuffs, on wholesale terms.
Different types of fruits, including wild fruits and dried foodstuffs such as fish, sardines and beans are sold here too.
Women, mostly micro-small traders, dealing in vegetables, dried cassava and wild fruits jostle for space, and when they get it, they spread their sacks on the floor very close to each other.
It is on those sacks that they display their wares on what are not very clean surfaces.
Your guess is as good as mine about what could happen to all of us if those surfaces got contaminated with the new coronavirus.
At peak period – between Monday and Saturday – the market is so congested that body contact between patrons and traders or customer-to-customer is unavoidable.
The market is the biggest wholesale outlet for farmers in the country, dealing in all sorts of produce ranging from tomatoes to vegetables of varied sort and seasonal crops such as maize, groundnuts and sweet potatoes.
Small-scale traders, women especially, are also there at the market in their droves.
What is worrying is that Soweto is full to capacity, while other markets in the townships can take in a few more traders and help decongest the flea market.
Perhaps convincing farmers and other suppliers of foodstuffs to consider supplying other markets, too, could help decongest Soweto.
Then Soweto will not be the only place where every market trader in Lusaka rushes to in the morning, and neither the preferred shopping destination for our mothers.
With the high cost of living, most women in the capital, Lusaka, find it cheaper to buy their vegetables, tomatoes and dried foodstuffs from Soweto.
That’s the other reason why the market is congested because the traffic of shoppers is as good as that of traders.
A trader at the market, Ngosa Chepela, told me that Soweto makes it easier for low-income traders to do business at the flea market.
The majority of traders there are women; among them single parents, widows and married women too, who have been supporting their families from the market business.
Suppliers of foodstuffs are usually men, but it is mainly women who do the retail business.
Some women can only afford a 25-kilogramme bag of vegetables for re-sale, while others need to find someone to pair with to share the cost of one bag costing K30 to K40.
So with a capital of less than K50, one can get started at Soweto market because vegetables and fruits are cheaper if one buys directly from the supplier.
All that one needs to do is to leave home in the wee hours and touch base as early as 04:00 hours to bargain with farmers and get the best of goods.
On the day I had met her, Ngosa had spent K100 to buy vegetables and tomatoes for re-sale. With a contribution of K50, she shared the cost of buying a K100-worth crate of tomatoes with a colleague.
And with another K50, she bought two types of vegetables for re-sale at the market.
She said this is what pulls traders to Soweto because they are able to do business with very little capital.
Apart from that, it attracts multitudes of food buyers because it is  cheaper compared to other markets in the townships.
As a matter of fact, market traders in the townships buy their goods from Soweto.
This explains the high levels of congestion at the market.
I think we need to consider decongesting Soweto market with deserved urgency.
It is not possible for people at the flea market to observe social distancing given the high volume of patrons and traders there.
I know for a fact that the Ministry of Local Government has launched a campaign to keep markets and bus stops clean and healthy.
However, the level of congestion at Soweto makes the enforcement of the campaign impossible.
In the event of someone being infected with the coronavirus, it will be difficult for them to observe respiratory hygiene because of the unavoidable body contacts at the market.
In my view, to forestall the contamination of the market with the novel coronavirus, we should decongest it or close it altogether should we fail to do so.
One way of decongesting the market is by restricting it to wholesale business only.
All retailers should be relocated to community markets until the COVID-19 has been eliminated.
This will mean that our mothers will not have to flock to Soweto to buy food, but rather will make do with markets in their localities.
And restricting the market to wholesalers will create a conducive environment for social distancing, and consequently preventing the spread of the new coronavirus. It will also be possible to clean the market and provide hand washing facilities.
As individuals, we can also contribute to the decongestion of Soweto by buying foodstuffs from our local markets.
Going to shop from such a congested place actually puts one at risk of contracting the deadly disease, which has put healthcare systems around the world under so much pressure.
In the meantime, that little shop in your neighbourhood could do.
To stay safe, we need to avoid unnecessary movements and this also includes not going to faraway places to buy food and other necessities.
Please remember that staying at home and keeping a safe distance from other people could save not just your life, but lives of many others too.

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