Africa’s crowded public transport systems could jeopardise efforts to curb local transmission of the continuing COVID-19 pandemic. The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), which is caused by a new strain of coronaviruses called severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), is ravaging the world, with the World Health Organization confirming 7,967 cases and 348  deaths in Africa as at 10 April 2020.

Public transport systems in African cities are always crammed.

For instance, a vehicle designed for 18 passengers will have close to 30 people, and there is always room for more, according Ifeanyi Nsofor, an epidemiologist and director of policy and advocacy for Nigeria Health Watch, told SciDev.Net in an interview last month. The design of public transport systems in Africa, presents a “disaster waiting to happen."

“Public transport systems in Africa are always crammed. For instance, a vehicle designed for 18 passengers will have close to 30 people.” Ifeanyi Nsofor, Nigeria Health Watch

He adds that limited access to basic sanitation services including water for washing hands and overcrowding at public transport stations of busy African cities such as Johannesburg in South Africa Lagos in Nigeria, Nairobi in Kenya and Yaounde in Cameroon and could be among the weak links for transmission of coronavirus if appropriate actions are not taken.

The WHO says that a distance of less than six feet may cause one to breathe in the droplets released through coughing or sneezing if the person coughing has SARS-CoV-2.  

In Kenya, the Ministry of Health has instructed all public service vehicles to observe spacing between passengers by carrying only 60 per cent of the capacity of their vessels. This implies thatb14-seater vehicles commonly known as matatu will carry eight passengers per trip.

Charles Hinga, Kenya’s principal secretary of the State Department of Housing and Urban Development, has directed matatu drivers and passengers to avoid personal contact and wash hands frequently with soap and water or sanitisers.

Hinga directed that motor vehicles and equipment at public transport stations be cleaned, disinfected, and sanitised after every trip. Also, all public service operators are to provide sanitisers for passengers before boarding vehicles.

Other countries such as Rwanda and Uganda have put up measures that can limit transmission through public transport systems such passengers washing hands with soap and water before boarding public service vehicles.

However, despite such measures, Nsofor says, seen in countries such as Rwanda, overcrowding is still a major problem in public service vehicles.

Local public health authorities need to train bus and taxi drivers about necessities such not having public transport vehicles crammed with passengers and ensuring that their passengers should cough or sneeze into tissue papers and dispose of them appropriately.

He urges African governments to encourage workers to work remotely.

“The fewer the number of people who work away from home, the fewer the number of people who would use public transport,” Nsofor explains.

Simon Kimutai, chairman of Matatu Owners Association in Kenya, says that COVID-19 has made the public transport industry to go on its knees because of low patronage.

“This is a tough time as we have lost revenue but lives matter for the industry. We support the government’s efforts to contain the virus and hopefully we succeed and get back rolling again,” Kimutai says.

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