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Kenya’s Minibus Workers Face Coronavirus Risk to Feed Families

A man walks past two Kenyan minibuses in Nairobi.
A man walks past two Kenyan minibuses in Nairobi.

Kenya projects it could tally up to 10,000 coronavirus cases by the end of April unless more measures to restrict movement are taken to halt the coronavirus' spread. With social distancing and a nighttime curfew already in place, those working in the transportation sector are facing hardships and now face a dilemma about whether to carry on with their work or stay home and earn nothing.

Countries like South Africa and Uganda have gone on lockdown as a measure to fight the coronavirus, which has spread to nearly every country in the world.

In Kenya, the public is ordered to stay at home from dusk to dawn.

The east African nation is known for its matatus, a minibus used to transport people. It usually carries more people than there are seats in the vehicle.

Forty-three-year-old Jackson Mwangi is a bus driver in Nairobi, and he must choose daily between the risk of contracting the disease or letting his family go hungry.

“But even if I fear, the other problem that faces me directly, immediately is that do I have the reserves? No," said Mwangi. "I wake up every day. I make the little for my family, and that’s what we eat each and every day.”

Elizabeth Njoki also works in the public transport sector. She says some passengers are not taking good care of themselves in public places.

“The flow of the commuters has just reduced," said Njoki. "The other problem is that some of the commuters would like to board the bus when it’s full, some of them don’t want to use sanitizers. And also, this virus, you can’t tell who is sick and who is not sick. We are working with a lot of fear.”

Kenya’s ministry of health has directed the owners of the buses to disinfect themselves after every trip and provide hand sanitizers as one of the measures to curb the spread of the virus, which has claimed the life of one person.

According to those familiar with the public buses in Nairobi, one bus can transport up to 300 people a day.

The ministry of health director, Patrick Amoth, said Monday that the coronavirus is spreading within communities.

“This virus is not following a particular trend," said Amoth. "Modeling puts us as having about 1,000 cases by the first week of April and postulates that we will have 5,000 cases by mid-April and potentially 10,000 cases by the 30th of April.”

Kenyan authorities are encouraging the population to stay at home — something Njoki, the mother of three, would like to do, but her financial situation won't allow it.

“I am worried, I would want to stay at home and be isolated, but it's hard for me because I have children who I am supposed to cater for," said Njoki.

Simon Kimutai is the chairman of the Matatu Owners Association, a group that owns and operates minibuses.

“I think what needs to happen is that there is need for sensitization, including not only Matatu crew, including the service users," said Kimutai. "These are the people who are traveling, these are the passengers. They should have their own sanitizers in their pockets, they should know if they are coughing, they should stay at home.”

Kenya has 59 confirmed cases of coronavirus, and has had one reported death.