Covid-19: in Africa

Coronavirus pandemic in Africa: 'It is as if people are preparing for war'

22 March 2020 - 00:00 By Reuters
A doctor and laboratory specialists at the Infectious Disease Unit of Kenyatta National Hospital in Nairobi get ready to visit a ward for quarantined people on March 15 2020.
A doctor and laboratory specialists at the Infectious Disease Unit of Kenyatta National Hospital in Nairobi get ready to visit a ward for quarantined people on March 15 2020.
Image: Yasuyoshi CHIBA / AFP

Alarmed consumers thronged markets across Africa this week, many in masks and gloves, to stock up as the coronavirus spread on the continent.

Prices rose in some parts, though at least two countries, Rwanda and Kenya, sought to control costs.

“It is as if people are preparing for war,” said an astonished shopkeeper as people clamoured for rice, cooking oil, sugar and flour at a market in the capital Kigali.

“Prices have gone up — but still they buy.” Initially spared as the coronavirus battered China and then spread out, Africa has seen a rash of cases this month and governments are taking drastic measures to curb its spread.

At least 33 African nations have now reported a total of more than 600 cases.

For many poorer people, panic buying is a privilege they cannot afford.

“Rich people are not afraid of high prices. They are buying in huge quantities,” said Pascal Murengezi, hawking second-hand clothes outside the Nyarugenge market in Kigali. Murengezi said he could not afford more than a day's worth of food.

“If the outbreak continues, I don't know how I will sell clothes on empty streets.”

The trade ministry in Rwanda fixed prices late on Monday for 17 food items including rice, sugar and cooking oil. It did not specify punishments for price-gouging.

Kenya also saw a rush on shops after reporting its first coronavirus case on Friday.

Within minutes, shoppers at the upscale Carrefour supermarket near the UN complex in Nairobi began piling trolleys with hand wipes, sanitisers and staples like rice and long-life milk.

Tusky's, another Kenyan supermarket, urged customers not to panic and this week launched a home-delivery service.

Like Rwanda, Kenya stepped in to try to curb price rises.

Its competition authority ordered another chain, Cleanshelf Supermarkets, to refund customers for overpricing hand sanitisers. The firm blamed one staff member for making unauthorised price increases.

From SA to Senegal, long lines snaked outside stores as families stocked up on items such as disinfectants and pasta.

“This is crazy. There's almost nothing on the shelves,” said pensioner Barbara Ollerman, stacking rice in her trolley in a Woolworths in Johannesburg.

Auditor Sihle Qalinge, at a Checkers nearby, said she had sneaked out of work to buy toilet paper — she had been trying to find it since Sunday.

In Senegal, a manager at a supermarket in Dakar's upmarket Mermoz area said sales had doubled since last weekend.

“The most sold items are pasta — people have taken everything!” she said.


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