March 26, 2020 / 1:06 PM / 3 days ago

Fearing coronavirus, African city dwellers flee to the countryside

NAIROBI/JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - Each morning at a crowded bus station east of Nairobi, Kenyans load their bags on to minibuses emblazoned with the faces of pop stars and Jesus, heading to their villages in the hope of escaping the coronavirus.

Passengers wearing masks walk to a taxi rank as residents of a number of African cities where the coronavirus is spreading are heading to the countryside to try to escape from the disease, in Johannesburg, South Africa, March 25, 2020. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

“I am going back home because of corona,” said Amina Barasa, her yellow headscarf standing out in the dark bus. The electronics shop where she worked had shut, she said, and she was going to stay with her family away from the city crowds.

“There you just stay in your compound where your movements are very limited. Here in the city you brush shoulders with so many people,” she said.

Travellers in other African cities - from Nairobi to Kampala, Johannesburg and Rabat - are also heading to the countryside, worrying officials who say this helped spread diseases like Ebola in other outbreaks.

Travelling makes it harder to trace contacts a sick person has had and risks increasing transmission through overcrowding, said James Ayodele, spokesman for the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

George Natembeya, the commissioner of Kenya’s Rift Valley Region, had a blunt message for travellers.

“You are going to kill your grandmother,” he told a news conference this week. “You are transporting disease, and if people die, you will carry that cross for the rest of your life.”

Kenya has 28 coronavirus cases. The government has severely restricted international flights, begun a dusk-til-dawn curfew, and informed buses and the public minibuses known as matatus that they can only fill half the seats to prevent overcrowding.

Simon Kimutai, chairman of the Matatu Owners Association, said trips out of Nairobi had more than doubled the week after the first coronavirus case was announced.

“It was all one-way,” he said. Now, trips within Nairobi were down by 75%, he said.

CLAMPDOWNS BEGIN

For some, the countryside is a refuge both from disease and the city’s high prices.

When Moroccan authorities closed the restaurant in the capital Rabat where Ahmed Agram worked as a waiter, he went home to the mountains of Taroudant, about 600 km south.

“The countryside is full of people who found themselves unemployed due to coronavirus,” Agram said. “In the countryside life is cheap and people help each other.”

Agram’s city neighbours won’t be able to follow him. Morocco, which now has 170 cases, halted inter-city travel earlier this week.

South Africa, which has Africa’s highest number of cases with 554 coronavirus patients, is going further.

A 21-day lockdown will begin at midnight on Thursday that will suspend all commuter and long-distance passenger rail services, international and domestic flights and cruise ships.

Minibus taxis will still be allowed to carry a third of their capacity to transport essential services workers and those permitted to move during the lockdown. The minibuses must be sanitized after every trip.

Student Keitumetsi Kelodi escaped Johannesburg before the lockdown began.

“I am leaving because our school decided to shut down the residences and I don’t have a choice,” she said, as she waited for her minibus taxi to depart for Brits, her small steel-mining hometown. “It’s better to leave now. I’m going back home to Brits because the virus has not reached there yet.”

Slideshow (12 Images)

Investment banker Sebastian Pieterse planned to commute between Johannesburg and the countryside after driving his pregnant wife and two small children to her parent’s farm in Limpopo, South Africa’s northernmost province, on Sunday.

But when the new restrictions were announced, he joined them rather than risk being trapped in the city.

“With her being pregnant we don’t want to risk it,” he said. “We are fortunate enough that we can do it. Many families don’t have that option.”

Reporting by Edwin Waita and Katharine Houreld in Nairobi; Mfuneko Toyana, Emma Rumney and Olivia Kumwenda in Johannesburg; Giulia Paravicini in Addis Ababa and Ahmed El Jechtimi in Rabat; writing by Ayenat Mersie; editing by Katharine Houreld and Mike Collett-White

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