Mobile Money Shields Some Zambians from Coronavirus, Endangers Others

Zambia’s government has called on the public to use less cash in order to reduce their exposure to the coronavirus. Now money tellers and grocers find themselves at risk.

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Mobile Money Shields Some Zambians from Coronavirus, Endangers Others

Prudence Phiri, GPJ Zambia

Ethel Zimba, a grocery trader at Soweto Market, deposits her cash sales into her mobile money account. She prefers that customers pay with mobile money, but some can’t, which means she has to handle cash. Health officials say hard currency can carry the coronavirus, exposing those who touch the money to possible infection.

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LUSAKA, ZAMBIA — In a booth at Lusaka’s Soweto Market, Ethel Zimba counts her cash and hands it to Maxwell Mwelya, a mobile money teller.

Behind her, three others wait to do the same.

Mwelya deposits all the cash into their mobile money accounts — digital wallets used to pay bills, shop and buy services. As he serves customers, Mwelya wears a mask and uses hand sanitizer.

Mobile money transactions have surged in Zambia since late March, as health officials urged the public to use less cash to reduce their exposure to the coronavirus.

Yet many people load their mobile accounts with actual cash deposits. And in doing so, they expose tellers.

Such are the complexities of trying to arrest the coronavirus: Even a seemingly simple protective step may lead to unintended consequences, shielding some but endangering others.

“While some people are avoiding going to shopping malls to pay their bills,” Mwelya says, “they come here to deposit money, and as such I handle a lot of it in a day, which puts me at risk.”

Zambia announced its first two cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, on March 18, and as of June 6, the nation has 1,089 confirmed cases. Seven people have died.

Along with social distancing measures and other restrictions, the government encouraged people to use more mobile money. Victor Mukonka, director of the Zambia National Public Health Institute, says cash can spread the coronavirus if an infected person touches it.

“Droplets can settle on money, and that could infect the next person,” Mukonka says.

Mobile money allows users to store, send and receive funds through their cellphones. These accounts are popular throughout sub-Saharan Africa, including Zambia, where the three major cellphone companies offer such services.

Zambia’s Central Bank reported that between 2014 and 2018, the value of mobile money transactions leaped from about 2.5 billion Zambian kwacha (ZMW) ($136.6 million) to 22.5 billion ZMW ($1.2 billion).

Digital transactions have soared since this year’s coronavirus outbreak, mobile money tellers say, fueled in part by the Central Bank’s raising daily transaction limits for individuals from 10,000 ZMW ($546) to 20,000 ZMW ($1,093).

At his enclosed booth at the Soweto Market, Mwelya takes deposits all day. He says he used to see 40 customers daily; now he sees more than 80.

Mwelya says he sanitizes his hands regularly and always wears a mask in his booth. He does not use gloves because he worries they will carry the virus.

“I fear that I might get sick and transmit the infection to my family at home,” says Mwelya, 25, who lives with his parents and three siblings.

Zimba, a grocery trader at the Soweto Market, frets about handling money, too. She fears exposing her three children — ages 14, 10 and 7 — to the virus.

Zimba asks customers to pay with mobile money, but sometimes they have only hard currency. She makes cash deposits at Mwelya’s booth twice a day.

“I still take the risk of handling money if my client can’t use mobile money,” she says, “but I wash my hand or sanitize.”

Dr. Chitalu Chilufya, Zambia’s minister of health, says the government can only do so much to keep people safe. He says employers must also take responsibility.

“This is everyone’s fight, not just the government’s,” Chilufya says. “The government will do its part. Let the corporate world do its part of implementing government’s directives and protect its workers.”

Mobile money tellers in Zambia are not directly employed by cellphone carriers. Instead, they work for agents of those companies, who are independent businesspeople. Mwelya’s boss, Stephen Nkhata, says he is concerned for his tellers’ health.

“As an agent, I know my tellers are at risk, but business has to go on,” he says. “I make sure that they have masks, and hand sanitizer to keep safe, and I also emphasize social distancing because those are the guidelines given by the government.”

Prudence Phiri, GPJ, translated some interviews from Nyanja.