By Emmanuel Kafe
“I will either die of hunger or Covid-19, but my family relies solely on my vending business for survival,” said Perseverance Mugano, one of the many illegal vendors plying their trade in Harare’s teeming Mbare suburb.
The 29-year-old Mugano is one of the countless unrepentant traders putting their lives and that of their families in harm’s way — trading in flagrant disregard of the extended lockdown regulations.
Although law enforcement agents keep a heavy presence in the suburb, the defiant vendors continue to play cat and mouse with the officers, at times regrouping even before the police details are out of sight.
As early as the crack of dawn, men and women — in deliberate neglect of the Covid-19 pandemic — are seen muscling each other out of the way at the indomitable Mbare Produce and Siyaso markets.
“In matters of life and death my brother, one naturally chooses life. But Covid-19 has brought us limited options in deciding on such matters. The issue is no longer about life and death, but how to die,” another vendor selling wearables said as he went about his business.
Under the country’s lockdown regulations, farmers are generally allowed to access the Mbare market, provided they adhere to Covid-19 stipulations. This includes wearing face masks, using hand sanitisers, observing social distancing and closing their stalls by the stipulated time.
However, farmers, customers and vendors operating in Mbare have remained ignorant of Covid-19 protocols that stipulate how the market is expected to operate.
Traders in most parts of the suburb are openly conducting their business oblivious to the dangers associated with Covid-19, raising the likelihood that they could be increasingly exposed to the deadly coronavirus.
A snap survey by this publication last week revealed how farmers, customers, vendors and informal traders are putting public health at risk.
Business at Mbare Musika starts at around 4 am in the fenced markets for fruit and vegetables and as soon as these close, action spills onto the surrounding sanitary lanes and streets, with vendors selling anything from used clothes to agricultural produce, timber and steel, empty cardboard boxes, agricultural chemicals, and foodstuffs, among other wares.
Due to the hive of activity in Mbare, illicit drugs, herbs and medicines are sold at some illegal points.
Enterprising dealers with vehicles have invaded vending sites selling from the comfort of their car boots and when police strike, they simply drive away.
Michael Ndaruza — who sells clothes just adjacent to the famous Mupedzanhamo market said although he is aware of how contagious and deadly the new virus can be, he had to weigh his options.
“I live here and selling these second hand clothes sustains me and my family — we have been affected by the lockdown and we are on survival mode,” he said.
At Siyaso, Mupedzanhamo along Cripps Road, Magaba, Rufaro Stadium — in the surrounding open spaces and along the road that passes OK Supermarket, the traders and vendors remain defiant.
“We are hoping that the lockdown can end soon, so that life can just go back to normal,” said Adrian Muradza who operates a backyard tuck-shop in the area.
Harare City Council spokesperson Mr. Michael Chideme said they had left all matters in the hands of national police.
“Since the lockdown started, the Zimbabwe Republic Police was heavily deployed in the area to maintain order. The lockdown is a national issue so although we play our part to enforce the by-laws, police are in charge of the overall operation to maintain law and order in line with provisions under the lockdown.”
Police continue to warn members of the public against breaching the current Covid-19 regulations.
National police spokesperson Assistant Commissioner Paul Nyathi said:
“We have been receiving several complaints of people who are operating their business defying lockdown regulations in Mbare. They should be warned the law will take its course, people should comply until further announcement are made. We have deployed more police officers in the area to make sure people comply with Covid 19 regulations”
He said Harare dominates the number of offenders violating Covid-19 regulations. To date, police have arrested about 460 000 people countrywide for defying Covid-19 regulations, since the lockdown came into effect on March 30 last year.
Owing to the importance of Mbare as the distribution centre for agricultural produce in Zimbabwe, experts say new solutions need to be adopted to ensure that the market place does not become a Covid-19 super spreader.
Agriculture produce expert Mr Charles Dhewa said markets like Mbare can be possible Covid-19 super spreaders if responsible authorities don’t address the sanitation and infrastructural issues in the area.
“While there is no proof that the markets in Mbare are super spreaders, the possibility is high that the place can be a super spreader because of lack of infrastructure. It gives room for people to trade anywhere and anyhow. Further exacerbating the situation is the fact that Mbare is home to many people who usually survive on vending,” he said.
He added: “Since council is struggling for resources, retailers and traders should consider contributing or mobilising resources for a complete overhaul of the sewer system and the market. Overall, the market has become too small for the volume of business taking place at Mbare,” he added. The Sunday Mail