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In Cameroon, Violating COVID-19 Restrictions Can Get You Arrested

Some people wear masks as they walk by the entrance to the Yaounde General Hospital in Yaounde, March 6, 2020 as Cameroon has confirmed its first case of the COVID-19 coronavirus.

Police in Cameroon have begun arresting people who defy measures put in place to stop the spread of the coronavirus, which has so far has infected 139 people in the central African state. Police are sealing shops that exceed maximum numbers for customers, impounding vehicles that carry too many passengers, and this week arrested more than 50 prostitutes for sneaking into hotels used to isolate suspected cases.

Jean Claude Tsila, the top government official in Mfoundi Division, the administrative unit where Yaounde is located, said he was appalled to learn that people who have been isolated in hotels on suspicion of being carriers of COVID-19 are receiving nocturnal visitors.

Tsila said he ordered the arrest of 50 prostitutes, as well as 13 women and 6 men who sneaked into hotels to meet their spouses.

"We discovered that people put in quarantine were conniving with hotel agents [workers] to smuggle women into the hotel to sleep with them. We have arrested some of them. We have to work together to stop this virus," he said.

Tsila said he ordered all of the arrested persons to be put in isolation, while the police have been instructed to find unauthorized hotel visitors who have been on the run.

Authorities in Cameroon recently isolated more than 500 citizens and 70 foreigners in an attempt to stop the spread of the coronavirus. All of those quarantined flew into the central African state on March 17th and 18th before the government closed the borders and suspended issuance of visas until further notice.

However, 150 of those quarantined escaped from their hotels. The government is searching for them, as well as another 186 people who returned home from France and Italy on March 17 and refused to be isolated.

Enforcing social distancing

Despite government warnings, officials say a majority of Cameroonians are not taking coronavirus seriously, and authorities are taking steps to enforce social distancing rules.

Troops have shut down stores for allowing in too many customers, closed markets for not respecting hygiene norms, and stopped buses that carried too many passengers.

Close to 400 taxis were ordered off the road in Yaounde alone for transporting more than the maximum three passengers per vehicle.

Taxi drivers union leader Ernest Verla said drivers will respect the restrictions if the government gives them subsidies, increases taxi fares or reduces fuel prices.

"They [the government] did not reduce the price of fuel, we are struggling, things are not moving and we are unable to make it. It is more than us. When you put [buy] fuel for 10 000 [francs] you are unable to work [raise] 3 000,” said Verla.

Cameroon’s first case of COVID-19 was confirmed on February 9. Since then, confirmed cases have increased to 139, with six deaths reported.