Coronavirus Threat Fails to Sideline Zambia’s Street Vendors

The lack of sanitation facilities makes illegal roadside trade particularly risky during the coronavirus crisis, and officials have threatened a crackdown. But the vendors say they have to make a living – despite the danger.

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Coronavirus Threat Fails to Sideline Zambia’s Street Vendors

Prudence Phiri, GPJ Zambia

Scolastica Lungu, left, sells mutton on the street in Lusaka’s Chawama area to customer Chisala Mwanza. Zambian law prohibits the sale of food on the streets.

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LUSAKA, ZAMBIA — The buzzing of flies can be heard as Scolastica Lungu’s clients inspect the fresh mutton she is selling on the roadside in Chawama township in Lusaka, Zambia’s capital.

The mutton sits on a wooden table while Lungu stands at the edge, ready with a knife for carving. Despite the fact that she deals in raw meat and serves dozens of customers a day, Lungu’s water supply is limited to the small amount she is able to collect each morning to keep by the table.

She says she knows that hygiene is necessary for preventing the spread of the new coronavirus, but without enough water she can wash her hands only a few times during the day. Finding more water would mean leaving her table and giving up potential business.

“I have heard about the disease and that we must wash our hands, which I do from time to time with water from my jug, but I can’t leave the street,” says Lungu. “My business has to go on. I have a family to look after.”

Street vending, the informal selling of goods outside markets, is illegal in Zambia. But despite the laws, the practice is common. Now, with the threat of the coronavirus hovering over the country, some worry that street vending will threaten Zambia’s efforts to curb the spread of the virus.

Zambia has recorded 679 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and seven deaths as of May 16. In late March, the government closed schools and universities and restricted public gatherings and nonessential travel in a bid to limit the spread of the virus. Failure to comply with the shutdown results in a fine of 750 Zambian kwacha (ZMW) ($40) or imprisonment of six months.

But while these measures are put in place to protect the public, it is business as usual for street vendors.

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Prudence Phiri, GPJ Zambia

Wisdom Kalunga prepares chapati, a street food, in Lusaka’s Kalingalinga township. Kalunga is not worried about the coronavirus because he believes it affects only “the rich.”

Street vending was banned in Zambia in 2017 during a cholera epidemic. Authorities blamed street vendors, who have little access to water or sanitation facilities, for spreading the contagion. Today, street vendors continue to work in the same conditions and may pose the same risks.

Victor Mukonka, director of the Zambia National Public Health Institute, says street vending can be fatal to both the traders and customers because of the lack of clean water.

“Without water people cannot wash hands, and there is exchange of money that can be a conduit of transmission,” says Mukonka. “Water is a commodity that is needed in any trading place, and streets do not have that, making it a place that can easily transmit infections.”

But street vending also provides employment to many Zambians who would not otherwise have any means of support. A 2015 census counted about 16,000 street vendors in Lusaka, says Teddy Sinkala, president of Zambia Micro and Small Traders Foundation Cooperative, an organization that advocates for small businesses and street vendors.

Sinkala says his organization has urged street vendors to restrict certain practices, such as serving cooked food by the roadside, but it is difficult when the traders need to sell to earn a living.

“We often discourage the sale of ready-to-eat foods on the streets,” says Sinkala. “But people defy our advice and still trade.”

Vendors say they have little choice but to break the law and continue to trade in a country where few employment opportunities exist and space in formal markets is limited and costly.

The official unemployment rate in Zambia is 11.4%, but in 2018, 45% of employed people worked in the informal sector as fruit and vegetable hawkers, day laborers and — like Lungu’s roadside butchery — street vendors.

Chapati maker Wisdom Kalunga worries more about making enough money to provide for his family than contracting the coronavirus. He has no plans to stop selling on the street.

“I can’t afford to be out of the street. What will I eat? This disease is for the rich, those who fly in planes — not us, the poor,” he says while handing a hot chapati to a customer.

But officials say a crackdown on street vending is looming. Lusaka Mayor Miles Sampa says that the law is clear on street vending and that with the threat of the coronavirus, vendors must leave the streets.

“Street vending causes overcrowding, and observing social distance is very difficult, and that puts people at risk. Hand-washing is another problem because there is no water on the streets,” Sampa says.

He says street vendors could move to formal markets but instead opt for the streets because they believe it is better for business.

“Street vending is hampering the fight against COVID-19. I have warned the street vendors, but if they do not heed to the warning, I remain with no option but to engage law enforcers to force them out of the streets,” Sampa says.

But Sinkala says a crackdown on street vendors would be a mistake. Instead, vendors should receive education and supplies to help them prevent the spread of the coronavirus. He says some have installed their own hand-washing stations.

“Chasing them from the streets would be devastating. We have no jobs for these people, and these are people that are working hard to feed families,” Sinkala says.

Prudence Phiri, GPJ, translated some interviews from Nyanja.