Paynesville Marketers Ignore Mask Wearing, Social Distancing

“Let the government also pass a mandate that store owners at Red Light sell wholesale goods rather than retail because it is retail that those street sellers are depending on to go against the mandate that is affecting us who obeyed the government to come here at Omega,” another marketer said.

The Ministry of Health in June reemphasized its stance on a few but cardinal Covid-19 preventive measures immediately after the infectious Delta variant of the coronavirus outbreak hit the country. Among the measures reintroduced and emphasized were the compulsory wearing of masks, physical social distancing, and the washing of hands in public areas.

The mandate, according to health authorities, was geared towards suppressing the mode of transmission and curbing the virus. Marketers including petty traders were instructed to wear face masks, maintain social distance and make sure customers abide by said rules.

"All persons shall wear masks at all times in public, ensure social financing of a minimum of three feet from each other, wash their hands or use alcohol-based sanitizer, a health ministry’s statement noted in June.

But those warnings are gone unheeded among some Liberians, especially those who converge, on a daily basis, at marketplaces to sell and purchase goods, health authorities have said.

“This attitude among Liberians not to adhere to the preventive measures will s slow reduction in transmission or make it impossible,” Liberia Chief Medical Officer (CMO), Dr. Francis Kateh, said in an interview recently.

During a recent tour at various marketplaces in Paynesville, the Daily Observer observed that the government’s health protocols were being ignored at markets such as ELWA junction, Red Light, Du-port Road, GSA and the newly commissioned Omega market.

“The issues of mask-wearing, hand washing, and social distancing—all in adherence to COVID-19 are all non-existent in these marketplaces,” authority at the Omega Market told this newspaper, “We have warned and even threatened some of the violators but they are not listening to us. Maybe they need the presence of army officers before they will start to listen.” 

“In fact, even those coming in to buy are also not wearing masks and socially distancing themselves,” he stated. 

The government during the peak of the first wave of the pandemic in April 2020 shut down non-essential businesses as a way of reducing over-crowdedness at marketplaces. This measure was a part of a nationwide lockdown measure intended to curtail further spread of transmission. 

The Liberia Marketing Association through the  Ministry of Internal Affairs were instructed to reduce the number of marketers selling daily in all marketplaces, meaning there were different groups on different days.

The government began relaxing the measures after cases began to dwindle and the economy began getting harder for the ordinary people. 

However, the new mandate issued in June this year, when the Delta variant began rampaging, did not call for shift selling—a situation that has led to over-crowdedness at various marketplaces.

“The government this time around did not instruct us to do shift selling but only wear masks and keep distances from each other,” Yatta Jones, who sells at Omega market said, “This is why all of the markets are jammed with buyers and sellers. 

A trader of raw peanuts, Ms. Jones said it is difficult to do social distancing, washing of hands even reduce the number of people coming into the market daily. "We don't have a good place to sit. How will you tell people coming to buy to wash their hands? Where is the bucket going to sit and where will the people coming to wash their hands?" She asked.

“We are surrounded by the mud, no way to be separated from your friend. All of us will have to jam together because we have nowhere to go and sell. She continues.

Ms. Jones noted that the LMA, the statutory body in charge of markets across the country should be at the forefront compelling both sellers and buyers to wear their masks, wash their hands and abide by the other protocols. “I’m not sure LMA officials are doing so,” she said. 

"They are only after collecting their daily fees and they are done. Health protocols are not a matter of concern to them”.

But one of the superintendents at the Omega market disagrees. Mary Saydee Walley said the association has been doing all it can to ensure that both sellers and buyers abide by the set health rules. “We are telling both the marketers and those coming to buy to always wear their mask, social distance, and wash their hands.

She said the group constituted what she termed as “joint security operation” a group of officers that are enforcing the protocols.

However, Ms. Jone’s sentiments were also echoed by Annie Matthew, who has a store and deals in women's wear at the Red-Light market. “Police officers may be enforcing the protocols but we as Liberians have to prioritize our health,” she said, "Once the buyers see the seller without a mask, they will be brave to come into the area without a mask." 

Some who even have facemasks do not wear them properly. They have it placed under their chin or hold it in their hands. “We have to be law-abiding if we are to eradicate Covid-19 from our country and return to our normal lives.  

“Most of the people only wear their masks when they see a police officer coming but when the officer leaves they will bring it down.”

For Lovette Moses, a buyer who went to Omega to purchase food for her family, flouting the health protocols is a dangerous game. “It might come back to hit us very hard. We need to act responsibly and do all that has been asked of us,” she said.

She wants more security officers deployed at marketplaces. “This will ensure people wear their facemasks.”

Chester Smith, National Public Health Institute (NPHIL) Lead Risk Communication said there is a need for more public awareness on mask-wearing especially for people who are engaged in trade.

He frowned on those hanging their mask under their chin or just putting it in their hands to avoid police interrogations. “Fortunately we have been seeing a lot of people wearing their masks under their chin and some just put it in their pocket because the police will ask you for it.
 This story was produced with support from Journalists for Human Rights (JHR), through the Mobilizing Media in the Fight Against COVID-19 in partnership with front Page Africa and the Daily Observer Newspaper