As I board a bus from central Monrovia en route New Georgia Estate, the first thought that flashes through my head is whether I am going to catch Coronavirus or not. Someone on the bus could have it and spread the infection. Or perhaps someone else who has it has left the bus already, leaving behind signs and symptoms as to leave the air tainted. But what about the seat on which I am going to sit? But that is a question I would rather avoid and so shove at the back of my thoughts. Besides, buses like this one, an old yellow school bus imported from America, is one of the only sources of public transport for many people who, like me, are too poor to own their own vehicle.
And so I board the bus. As much as I can, I try not to touch with my hands any part of it or a few of the people are sitting with their bodies partly in the aisle. And I do not touch anything or anyone until I am seated. I sigh heavily because I am tired. And it is not only from fear of Coronavirus. Instead, the truth is that I am not used to this sort of thing. How can you go into a place full of people and yet try not to touch or be touched by anyone or anything?
In the bus are only a few passengers; it would take a while before it is full and ready to leave. I look through one of the windows and to the street outside, careful that my head does not touch the window. Outside are hundreds of street sellers, some with trays on their heads, some selling from wheelbarrows, stalls, tables and cement blocks placed by the roadside. From the walls of houses built close to the sidewalk so that it is not wide enough for three people to walk side by side, others have hung several things for sale, among them bags and clothes which look as if they have been put in the sun to dry. Above the shouts of street sellers, of music playing from shops and stores by the roadside, and of the footsteps of people everywhere, is the noise of the traffic. And I can’t help but wonder how you would walk into such a crowded street and try not to touch or be touched by anyone or anything?
A woman comes and sits in the seat next to me and on the other side of the aisle. She is slightly built, dressed in a green lappa suit and head-tie, and carries a handbag slung over her shoulder. From the handbag she removes a hand sanitizer, puts a drop of it into the palm of her right hand, and rubs her hands together. And then with the palm of her left hand, she rubs the back of her right hand and repeats the same exercise on the back of the left hand. Then she looks at me and smile. But I am nervous. Instead of returning her smile, my face turns into a tight knot and I look away. I am not sure if Coronavirus can be spread through a smile. But lately I have gotten suspicious of everyone and everything.
In a few minutes all the seats are fIlled but not as you would expect. Before Coronavirus, there would be three people sitting shoulder to shoulder, with the third person almost falling into the aisle, on the seat on which I sit, and the aisle would be full of people standing so that there would be no way to pass, the air smelling of exhaust fumes, of sweat streaming from bodies packed together like spaghetti, and so hot it would be almost impossible to breathe. Fortunately, today is different. On the seat on which I sit are only two people – me and a man sitting opposite. The man is short and has broad shoulders. But I cannot make out his face properly because he is wearing a mask which leaves visible only his eyes, his forehead and hair. I wonder how long he would endure not being able to breathe properly and remove his mask. The man says something to someone in the seat in front of us. His words come out like he is being choked. I bow my head and laugh so he doesn’t see me.
I turn and look at the woman who sits on the other side of the aisle. I am surprised that she too is looking at me but trying not to let me catch her. Perhaps she thinks I have Coronavirus? I am not sure.
The woman takes a handkerchief from her handbag, holds it close to her face, and coughs. I look at her with eyes and mouth wide open but try not to panic because she could only have a common cold. Besides, how can I leave the bus anyway? As one of many measures taken to curb the spread of Coronavirus, the Weah government recently imposed a curfew which starts at three o’clock in the afternoon. It is past two o’clock. I cannot risk being found in the streets and flogged by police who have been ordered to beat up anyone found breaking the curfew. Besides, this bus could be the only one going to my area.
“You woman da coughin,” someone says, “why you na wear mask?”
“Before you ask de old ma why she na wear mask,” someone else retorts, “I can see you yourself na wearin’ any mask. Or if you worry because someone will cough why you in de bus, then you suppose to buy your own car or refuse to come to town and stay home.”
“Stay home! And how you wan me to feed my family?”
“I don’t know. But it lookin like you worry about Coronavirus.”
“And who na worry about Coronavirus? Look, my man, turn your mouth on da side because da de woman who coughin?”
“And who can’t cough?”
The whole bus laughs.
The woman coughs again. This time she does it so violently that she can barely hold the handkerchief to her face. Everybody turns and looks at her. For a moment, the bus is quiet. The woman coughs a third time and almost falls down into the aisle.
“Stop de bus, driver,” someone shouts.
But the driver does not hear.
“I say driver stop de bus now or you wan de woman to infect us with Coronavirus?”
The man next to me stands up and shouts at the top of his voice, and soon we are all standing up and shouting at the tops of our voices. Then suddenly the bus stops. The impact sends us falling over our seats. Almost immediately everyone tries to get out of the bus so that what follows is a stampede. I am pushed into a group of people making for the door. Someone pulls and tears my shirt, and I strike out with hands and feet as I make my way to the door and fall out of the bus, careful not to let my head hit the tarred road.
I rise to my feet and look at my shirt in surprise. One of the sleeves is gone, all the buttons are missing, and the shirt hangs on me wide open. My forehead feels like it has been cut. I reach with my hand to feel it, and find that there is a small swelling. Behind me, the voices of people still shouting to be let out of the bus can be heard above the noise of the traffic and the shouts of street sellers.
A passerby stops and asks, “My fren wuh happen?”
“I don’t know,” I say, “because it looks like the world must be crazy.”
Editor’s note: The above piece is a work of fiction. Thanks for reading!