When COVID-19 hit, Vandi Lansana knew what he had to do. As National Vice President of the Sierra Leone Traders’ Union, he had dealt with a fast-spreading, dangerous disease before: Ebola.
Unlike the current COVID-19 pandemic, not much attention was paid internationally to the Ebola virus, which only really spread within the West African nations of Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea and, later, the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Yet, there are many similarities and lessons that can be learnt from this earlier outbreak, Vandi explains in a recent conversation with StreetNet – an international alliance of membership-based organizations of street vendors – in the first of WIEGO’s Workers’ Voices webinar series.
To contain the Ebola virus, epicentres of infection were put on lockdown and even market places were shut down. Districts were similarly closed off and it became impossible to move from one to another, severely impacting the work of vendors who depended on their trade in other localities to earn a living. Casualties occurred partly as a result of misinformation, making it difficult for traders to understand the virus and prevent infection. Not until later did the health services put out clear guidance around handwashing and social distancing. Meanwhile, street vendors faced harassment from the municipal trade police and other government institutions as they attempted to continue their trade to ensure their families’ livelihoods.
For the Sierra Leone Traders’ Union (SLeTU) and its 600,000 street vendor members, it was a nightmare scenario. SLeTU had been the first organization to formally register as a trade union of workers in the informal economy in Sierra Leone, back in 2007. Since then, it earned the trust of its members and it was this strong relationship that would provide the SLeTU leadership with the credibility needed to address the health crisis for street vendors struggling to make a living under the imposed restrictions. Now, with COVID-19, vendors have again suffered as a result of lockdown and a nighttime curfew, but – as a result of lessons learnt from Ebola – there has been a low number of deaths, Vandi says.
Seven of SLeTU’s members are known to have died as a result of COVID-19. A small number, Vandi explains, compared to what it could have been had they not been able to learn from the Ebola crisis. “The experience with Ebola helped us to minimize casualties. We are taking precautions based on our experience with Ebola,” Vandi says. Remembering the lack of safety information for traders as Ebola spread, the SLeTU leadership met with street vendors to explain what they could do to ensure the safety of both themselves and their customers.
Relying on the trust SLeTU has built with its members over the years and including several trader organizations in the outreach, the leaders emphasized the severity of the pandemic and convinced traders to implement hygiene and distancing protocols. Armed with Veronica buckets – a bucket with a tap at the bottom, ideal for handwashing – and a well-defined message, they encouraged the traders to continue their work. They also made sure traders had access to clean water for handwashing, sanitized their hands after transactions and they encouraged the use of face masks. In marketplaces around the country where it is a struggle to maintain social distancing measures, markets have been reorganized so that customers can keep their distance and safely enter and leave the market. SLeTU also reached out to its members through TV and radio broadcasts. With support from the authorities, SLeTU spread their message and ensured adherence to the use of face masks. Together with other Informal Economy Workers Unions, SLeTU signed a Memorandum of Understanding with government ministries to work together in the fight against COVID-19.
Throughout the response, district leaders are keeping in touch about the latest developments through WhatsApp, which has proven to be an essential piece of technology at a time when travel and face-to-face meetings are not possible.
A 9pm curfew was imposed as the COVID-19 virus spread and, for a lot of vendors selling cooked foods, vegetables and other foods to people enjoying late-night entertainment, this was a disastrous decision. Soon, the traders were out of business as the streets were empty and leaving the house at night time became punishable by law. Districts were put under lockdown, as they had been during the Ebola crisis, preventing traders from selling in their usual spots and their earnings soon disappeared.
But this time around, Vandi and SLeTU knew what to do. They asked the local authorities for permission to move food items from one district to another, to prevent food shortages and to continue at least some trade. They suggested only a minimum number of people, a driver and two additional persons, would be involved in the process. “It worked perfectly, and this is how we avoided food shortage,” Vandi says.
Now, traders are again able to move between districts, provided they are in possession of an electronic pass that shows you have been given permission to travel beyond lockdown barriers. For many uneducated informal workers, the application for such a pass is complicated and SLeTU has opened up their offices to help with the application process, so that traders can travel freely with their goods. Also, the government has now relaxed the curfew measures from 9pm to 11pm. The volume of sales, however, remains low as the number of customers has dwindled.
Women traders in Sierra Leone are the most vulnerable and they have been particularly affected by the crisis. They are facing increased care responsibilities and, especially in those cases where they are the main breadwinner or a single parent, their families’ livelihoods are severely threatened.
The government, through the World Bank, is providing some emergency cash transfers to vendors, especially petty traders, but Vandi says those reach less than 25 per cent of traders around the country — it targets mainly poorer petty traders and is accessible only to a limited number of people per district. SLeTU, on behalf of its members, is advocating to broaden the scheme so that more vendors in serious financial trouble can be helped through this difficult time. Meanwhile, they are working with the government and other partners to try to get their membership back in business as soon as possible.
Feature Photo Credit from a presentation by Vandi Junior Lansana (Sierra Leone Traders’ Union) with Pat Horn (StreetNet)for the first of WIEGO’s Workers’ Voices webinar series.