By Nqobile Tshili
A couple of coded whistles, then a flurry of activity and adults disappear at the first sign of a police uniform.
Children of school-going age suddenly prowl the streets canvassing for sales, mostly without adequate protection from the deadly Covid-19 pandemic that has decimated populations the world over.
Parents are allegedly deploying their children to vending spots, taking advantage of the fact that police appear not to be as strict when dealing with minors who flout the stay-at-home regulation.
The child vendors operate in crowded areas such as Zimbabwe United Passenger Company (Zupco) bus pick up points.
The areas teeming with people to whom social distancing is still a myth, are breeding grounds for the killer virus.
Government closed schools indefinitely as it tries to mitigate against the spread of Covid-19, as local transmissions surge beyond 3 000.
President Mnangagwa two weeks ago announced tightened lockdown regulations in view of the spike in local transmissions, directing all the non-working population to stay at home.
Chronicle observed that although most vendors have reoccupied their spots, there is an emerging trend where child vendors are gradually taking over from their parents on the streets.
A majority of the children frequent queues at supermarkets, fuel stations and public transport pick-up points, innocently hawking into potential Covid-19 death traps.
The minors would not be wearing their masks properly while manoeuvring their way through commuters jostling to board Zupco buses.
The news crew managed to speak to some of the child vendors, although they cannot be identified for professional reasons.
The children claimed they were supporting their parents in raising money to buy food.
“I came with my mother, who operates at a different area in the city centre but she is also selling fruits and vegetables. Although there are police officers who are on patrol, I try to avoid them so that I do not get into trouble. To avoid being arrested we walk to town,” said a Form One boy at Nketa High School, operating at the Nkulumane pick-up point.
Asked, if he was not afraid of contracting Covid-19, the minor said: “I’m not afraid as I’m protected by God,” while revealing that he was not conducting any home learning despite Government rolling out radio lessons.
Another boy, a Form Three pupil at Mzilikazi High School said it was better for him to assist his parents in selling fruits and vegetables as it put food on the table.
He said although he has heard of Covid-19, he believed the risk of contracting it was the same if he stayed at home.
“We survive on vending at home. In the past I would go to school and upon my return, I would start selling vegetables at our street corner. But these days a lot of people are now doing the same at their homes so we decided to come to town hoping to expand our clientele,” said the boy.
The news crew observed that although the teenager was putting on a mask, it covered his mouth but not the nose.
Even in residential areas some child hawkers have started conducting door-to-door sales, which could increase the risk of contracting the virus.
Some residents said while it was inevitable that people will resort to vending due to economic hardships, it was a serious risk to make children vendors and hawkers in view of the Covid-19 disease that has killed more than 80 people in the country.
Mrs Siboniso Nkomo, from Mpopoma suburb, said while parents can take conscious decisions in trying to reduce their risks of contracting Covid-19, it was reckless to let children out.
“I think some people do not understand the severity of this disease. We can claim that we are forced by hunger to be going out and trying to make a living. But we have a responsibility to save our children from being exposed to this pandemic.
“Right now these children only have masks, they are mingling with a lot of people, they have no sanitizers yet we are told that virus is fastly spreading in communities. I think more needs to be done to educate the people about Covid-19, a lot of people seem to take it lightly,” said Mrs Nkomo.
Bulawayo Vendors and Traders Association (BVTA) director Mr Michael Ndiweni said vendors were deploying their children taking advantage of the fact that minors cannot be arrested by municipal police.
“It is a result of closing of space for traders. As a result, families are now using their children to trade but that amounts to child labour and as BVTA we don’t condone that.
“Children must be reading or preparing their school work as opposed to having parents sending them out to be vending. We discourage child labour,” said Mr Ndiweni.
Bulawayo mayor Councillor Solomon Mguni said children were not just used as vendors but even beggars.
“Times are hard and we have noticed increases of not only child vendors, but beggars as well. This is terrible for the city and the people of Bulawayo. It goes against the very foundations of our ubuntu where the child is left to fend for the family.
“This could be because of absence of social safety nets at a time when the is a rise in child headed families. Ordinarily, children should be in school but due to the Covid 19 induced lockdown then now have to earn livelihoods by vending, and in other instances they have to raise their own school fees,” said Cllr Mguni.
He challenged the Social Welfare Department to look into such issues as they threaten the social fabric. The Chronicle