Making Markets and Communities Safer From COVID19

July 9, 2021

Lusaka City Council Staff distributing posters and providing education to marketeers in Lusaka


Responding to the COVID-19 crisis in Zambia, local authorities, backed by UNDP Accelerator Labs, Sweden & Ireland, are racing to prevent the virus from overcoming communities & market areas most prone to contagion.

A stack of unsold fruits and vegetables is an unsettling sight for fruits vendor Catherine Malupa, reminding her of the daily struggle to feed her five children as COVID-19 threatens the livelihoods of tens of thousands of informal traders, mainly women across Zambia.

“I had to borrow money to pay my children’s school fees. My business had been doing well but COVID-19 has pushed me in an awkward situation. Feeding my family is another daily worry,” said the 53-years-old widow whose only wish is for the coronavirus to “go away soon.”

Catherine’s situation mirrors many vendors, mostly single mums in Zambia who are reliant on income from day-to-day commerce on the streets and in crowded markets to put food on their table.

The vast majority of Zambia’s marketeers are women who, according to United Nations data, account for most of the over 65.4 percent of Zambians who work in the informal sector. The pandemic has increased the debt burden on these women and pushed their families to the brink of poverty.

Fear of Contagion

Marketeers like Catherine are particularly vulnerable not only because of the premium on space in the markets, but traders touch paper money and coins all day, which can transmit the virus. Moreover, overcrowding also makes social distancing impossible in the markets where tracing carriers and their contacts is a major challenge.

“I’m praying that COVID-19 doesn’t enter the shanty communities and the markets because if that happens, it will be very disastrous for Zambia,” says Catherine.

According to government figures, an estimated 70 percent of the urban population in Zambia resides in informal settlements, housing millions of people, where the key to containing the spread – frequent hand washing and social distancing - are not feasible.  Families in many slum communities also live in just one bedroom, making the space for self-isolation impossible to reduce the chance of infection.

Zambia has seen a sudden surge in deaths and case numbers since early May, leading to fears about the strain on the health service.  Zambia's COVID-19 positivity rate, which was around five percent for most of April, rose to 19 percent in June. Active cases increased to over 900, from around 400 at the start of the month, according to the health ministry.

The southern African nation has recorded since the beginning of the pandemic in March last year more than 149,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with more than 2,000 deaths.

Health experts fear the respiratory disease could have a catastrophic impact on a country with a shaky healthcare system and where access to basic sanitation and clean water for hand washing are out of reach for many in mostly densely packed communities.

Safety Measures

However, with support from UN entities and cooperating partners, the government has put in place a series of public health measures including mandatory mask wearing to curb the transmission rate.

Since mid-June, the government has closed schools temporarily and banned super spreader events including weddings, saying large gatherings risked spreading the COVID-19 virus.

But for traders like Catherine, losing daily wages because of COVID-19 health measures severely threaten their ability to feed their families.

Rising to the Challenge

Eager to regain her livelihood hit by weary buyers, Catherine knows one way to stem the spread of COVID-19 is through individual and collective actions. So she signed up as a volunteer on the Health Committee of a small community market in Lusaka’s Nyumba Yanga under the pilot phase of the Safe Markets, Safe Communities project, an initiative aimed at ensuring that community markets are compliant to COVID-19 public health regulations while protecting livelihoods.

The project is implemented by the Lusaka City Council and the Ministry of Health with co-funding from the Governments of Sweden, Ireland and UNDP Accelerator Labs with support from the Government of Zambia and the United Nations Joint Programme on Gender-Based Violence Phase II (GRZ-UN JP GBV).

The Safe Markets, Safe Communities project works closely with the departments of public health from the City Council and the Ministry of Health through established community structures namely Community Based Volunteers and market committees from three residential areas of Nyumba Yanga, Chilenje and Lilanda.

Saving Lives and Livelihoods

Armed with basic training on safety and hygiene, face masks, thermometer and messages approved by the Ministry of Health, Catherine Mulapa walks 3 kilometers every morning from her house to the market not only to sell perishable vegetables and fruits but to do a job few others would contemplate in a pandemic - check the temperatures of arriving buyers and fellow marketeers.

The mother of five is not a nurse or medic of any sort - just one of hundreds of ordinary Zambian women who are battling the virus in their communities. “I help sensitise people on the benefits of marketeers wearing masks and the confidence it gives to customers,” she said.  

At a small community market in Lilanda, health committee member Emma Nanyangwe, 49, is seen checking the temperatures of arriving buyers, dispelling myths and educating people about the dangers of COVID-19. “With everyone wearing a mask and social distancing, marketeers and buyers are feeling safer,” Emma said.

Fruits vendor Cecelia Banda from Lusaka’s Chilenje Market and her family have been dependent on her income from her business, which has dwindled due to the coronavirus pandemic. With four children to feed, the 42-years old said the virus has created “a mental burden” for her and it affects her family’s income.

“I want my livelihood back! I come here every morning, making sure that both buyers and sellers comply with health regulations so that we are all safe,” she says.

As transmission of the third wave of the coronavirus spreads, market officials say women like Catherine, Emma and Cecelia are essential foot soldiers in the war on COVID-19. “They already have a wide range of knowledge and experience from dealing with cholera outbreaks to malaria prevention in the markets,” one market official said.

According to market officials, the three markets have been a lot safer - compared with other markets - because of the intervention. “We haven’t had a single COVID-19 case at our market since the project started last year,” another official said.

Catherine, Emma and Cecelia are among 1,900 traders including 950 women trained by the project to spread awareness about the virus, identify people with symptoms and help trace those with whom they may have had contacts.

As an entry point, 75 community-based volunteers and market safety officers were also trained using existing community health training modules with the aim to reach households at community levels on the importance of complying to health guidelines.

To support compliance among vendors and customers, the project provided face masks, fumigation equipment and thermometers as well as soap and water dispensers so people can wash their hands before entering the markets. For continuous awareness on safety and hygiene, communication materials on how to wear a face mask and how to make a cloth mask using local materials were provided.

The Power of Partnership

With implementation support from UNDP Accelerated Labs and funding from the Governments of Sweden and Ireland through the GRZ-UN JP GBV, the Lusaka City Council and the Ministry of Health are making efforts to stem the spread of COVID-19 amid fears it could have disastrous effects for the country’s shanty communities and market areas most prone to contagion.

“The project is strengthening knowledge as well as individual and collective responsibilities toward adhering to public health regulations and preventing the spread of the deadly virus in our markets,” says Lusaka Deputy Mayor, Christopher Shakafuswa who is now contesting a parliamentary seat in the capital, Lusaka.

The Swedish Ambassador to Zambia, Anna Maj Hultgård said that the project would ensure gender equality and the empowerment of women by implementing affirmative action for sustaining women’s economic activities in the selected markets. “The safe markets project is an example of efforts to reduce vulnerability to Gender-Based Violence by addressing the economic disempowerment of women resulting from restrictions around COVID-19. The safe markets will enable women, which are the majority of traders in the market, to continue trading in a way that minimizes or at least limits the risk of COVID-19,” she said.

Through UNDP support, several educational materials have also been created and shared to support the outreach effort in communities across the country. UNDP is working together with other UN agencies to end the scourge, as well as helping the government develop a national recovery strategy. This aims to rebuild the livelihoods of those most affected and strengthen the government’s capacity to restore essential services.

An enhanced UN-wide response provides psychosocial interventions which are helping to prevent infection through water, sanitation and hygiene services.

“UNDP is supporting the Safe Markets initiative as part of the UN Zambia support to the Government’s response to COVID-19. UNDP hopes that by collectively rethinking and adapting existing market models to COVID-19 Compliant Models, community behaviour will be positively impacted, thus leading to the prevention of the spread of COVID-19 arising from community ownership while preserving the livelihoods of communities,” says UNDP Deputy Resident Representative, Roland Seri.

“The pandemic has put the life of everyone at stake, but we will get over this difficulty if we all do what is needed to keep safe,” says Nora Ngosa, head of the Chilenje Market.  She said the swift and early action by the Safe Markets, Safe Communities project is helping to make community markets safer, noting that constant vigilance is needed to beat COVID-19.

Public Health Awareness

Zambia has long raised public health awareness through TV, radio spots and songs. Radio stations play COVID-19 awareness jingles on repeat and encouraged residents to stay safe. TV stations air sensitisation programmes to help viewers learn more about COVID-19 and its consequences, but also to promote ways to avoid its spread within communities.

While the government and health experts see social media as a fast and efficient way to help a large number of people, mainly youths stay healthy during the outbreak, not everyone is able to go online whenever they need information about the virus.

And then there is the challenge of getting information out to everyone in a population whose members practice a variety of cultures and speak a vast array of local languages. Radio broadcasts and door to door sensitisation have been the most efficient means to raise awareness in local languages and fight stigma arising from the pandemic, especially in most-at risk communities.

“There is a need to scale-up the Safe Markets, Safe Communities initiative and increase awareness,” says Benjamin Mungole, head of the Nyumba Yanga Market, “so that ignorance does not facilitate the spread of the virus.”

Potential to Scale Up

UNDP’s Gender Programme Coordinator, Shupe Makashinyi, said the pandemic could lead to a rise in all types of violence against women and girls, particularly domestic violence (based on anecdotal reports from partners) and UNDP intends to scale-up the Safe Markets model to help address the impact of COVID-19 on women and girls in the context of Gender Based Violence.      

“Social and economic strains - compounded by COVID-19 restrictions - could potentially make women and girls more prone to physical and sexual violence, ” she said.

There are no official statistics on the number of cases of violence against women and girls during the pandemic in Zambia but calls to helplines had supposedly surged more than 10-fold when the partial lockdown measures were imposed last year.

Market officials say the safe markets model can be instrumental in helping women vendors - giving them greater autonomy and access to services as well as life-saving information.