Small businesses suffer as Nigeria fears spike in coronavirus cases

Amid fears of a spike in coronavirus cases in Africa's most populous country, small traders and businessmen are struggling to survive due to measures taken to prevent the spread of the virus


Amid fears of a spike in coronavirus cases in Africa’s most populous country, small traders and businessmen are struggling to survive due to measures taken to prevent the spread of the virus. Linus Unah reports from Lagos. 

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Etim Joseph is removing scales from a tilapia fish. The percussive sound from his shop rises above the occasional whirr of minibuses and cars whizzing by as he chops the fish into tiny chunks and guts it for packaging, the knife clacking against a wooden table.

Joseph’s frozen food store in the Yaba suburb of Nigeria’s commercial city of Lagos is deprived of customers on Thursday, following a directive by Lagos state authorities asking all markets and shops – including amusement parks, swimming pools, gyms, beauty salons, bars, lounges, spas, and entertainment houses – to close on Mar 26 as health officials and workers race to contain the spread of the deadly coronavirus.

The restriction will last for seven days and only sellers of food, pharmaceutical products, water, medical equipment and other essential services like the fire fighters, members of emergency services, health, water, telecommunication, security, and media are allowed to operate.

“On a normal day I would have attended to up to 25 customers but today not many people are coming out to buy anything from us,” said the fishmonger who also sells frozen chicken, beef, turkey and shrimps along a busy street near the University of Lagos.

Around him, online bookmakers, beauty salons, bookshops, bars, e-commerce retailers, internet cafes, real estate agents, furniture showrooms, and grocers have all shuttered. The street is quiet in stark contrast to what it used to be two weeks ago: endless streams of students, cars, minibuses, sellers and buyers crisscrossing the entire breadth of the street.

Rising number of cases

Since Nigeria recorded its index case of COVID-19 in late February, the numbers have continued to rise. As of March 26, 65 cases of the virus have been recorded in the West African nation, home to about 200m people, the largest in the African continent. Of this number, 44 cases are in Lagos, Nigeria’s megacity with an estimated population of 20m. The disease has spread to Nigeria’s capital Abuja as well as seven out of Nigeria’s 36 states. So far, three patients have been discharged and one death recorded.

“We are working closely with states to conduct contact tracing to identify those who have been in close contact with confirmed cases,” health minister Osagie Ehanire told journalists today.

“We urge all Nigerians to practice social distancing and limit all mass gatherings including religious, social and political events.”

There are genuine worries that Nigeria is not conducting sufficient coronavirus tests, and this explains why there are low number of coronavirus cases. Only 262 people have been tested in Nigeria as of March 25, compared to South Africa’s 20,471 tests as of March 26.  It is not surprising that South Africa has recorded 927 positive cases of which 218 new cases were recorded on Mar. 26 alone.  

Troubled by the rising cases and perhaps on-going transmission, Lagos state authorities have imposed strict measures to combat the virus, including allowing the majority of civil servants to work from home, asking restaurants not to serve eat-in customers and reducing the number of people allowed in any public gathering from 50 to 25.

To enable commuters to maintain physical distancing, the local transport ministry has ordered government buses to run at 60% capacity, while commercial minibuses are asked to carry eight rather than their usual 14 passengers.

The agriculture ministry has also set up temporary food markets in school grounds to enable residents to buy food items in a more organised setting without panic buying during the seven-day restriction.

Lagos state governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu has asked banks to take full advantage of digital services to limit crowded banking halls and urged other private firms to introduce measures such allowing non-essential workers to work from home. Courts have been directed to close and all court sitting suspended.

Officials insist that this is not, in effect, a lockdown.

Sanwo-Olu asked residents to cut down on inter-state trips and said health officials are deploying hundreds of fumigation machines to sterilise public spaces and surfaces. In addition, the state said it is opening seven additional isolation centres to deal with emerging cases.

“We are doing all we can to flatten the curve and stop COVID-19,” Sanwo-Olu said in a televised address.

Effect on small businesses

These measures are taking a toll on traders and residents alike.

“A lot of people have bought plenty food and other items so there will be huge decline in sales,” fishmonger Joseph said.

He has installed a running tap in his shop and provided hand sanitizers to wash his hands after attending to customers or touching any surface. On his desk, face masks, hand gloves and a separate sanitizer lie, only for his own use.

Prices for hygiene products like face masks, hand sanitizers and hand gloves have more than doubled, as buyers rush to supermarkets and stores to grab whatever is left on the shelves.

“People are scared of coming out so there’s barely any market for us now,” said Abubakar who sells servings of fried egg and instant noodles which is heavily consumed here.

He said he bought additional packets of take-away food boxes as customers now prefer servings in the containers than sitting on his wooden benches and eating there.

Yusuf, a commercial motorbike taxi driver, said there are hardly customers nowadays.

“Look at the road, there is nobody or car anywhere,” he remarked, pointing to a peaceful access road sandwiched by closed offices and schools. “Where will the customers come from?”

Benedict Ibe, who works with a renewable energy consultancy in Lagos island, laments that the restrictions have forced his office to close and made him to spend “heavily” on household and food items.

“Social distancing is even costing me plenty money because I have to take Uber wherever I am going rather than minibuses with 14 passengers,” Ibe said.

For now, frozen food seller Joseph is heavily reliant on regular hygiene practices.

 “I am avoiding handshakes and limiting physical contact with others,” he says, laughing. “If I mistakenly touch anybody I quickly apply a sanitizer or use the running tap to wash my hands.”

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