The fear of hunger propelled vendor Jean Naina Rakotomamonjy to defy a lockdown imposed in Madagascar’s capital to curb the spread of coronavirus.
“I need to find something for my family to eat today,” said the 53-year-old father of three, who sells seafood in the capital Antananarivo, where citizens have been ordered by the president to “stay at home”.
The same order applies in the island nation’s second city Toamasina.
“I know the coronavirus can kill. But if I stay home for 15 days, I will die as well,” he said.
The vendor was not the only one to defy the new measures announced by President Andry Rajoelina late on Sunday.
At the crack of dawn, the usual horde of hawkers and hustlers were out and about in Antananarivo’s narrow streets.
“I do not have the means to save money and stock up on provisions,” said Rakotomamonjy, who managed to get on a minibus before armed soldiers put up roadblocks and ordered public transport to turn back.
The poor Indian Ocean nation has so far detected 12 cases of the novel coronavirus, which has infected more than 340,000 people worldwide and killed over 15,000.
“Those who don’t respect these measures will suffer severe penalties,” the president warned in a televised broadcast on Sunday night.
– ‘We choose to live’ –
But the army’s presence has done little to keep citizens at home.
In Antananarivo, private cars and pedestrians seamlessly passed through check points as they went about their daily business.
“Where do you come from? Where are you going?” asked nonchalant soldiers, rifle in hand, before waving them through.
“I have just bought shrimps… and I have to get to Besarety market to sell them, but there are no buses,” Rakotomamonjy complained, balancing a dripping 10-kg sack on his head.
“If I do not hurry, my clients will think that I am not working today,” he added.
Pedestrians crowded the street around him, seemingly unaware of universal calls to maintain a distance from others to avoid contamination.
At the bustling Antohamadinika market, a 30-minute walk from the city centre, stalls continued to line the footpath, despite soldiers standing nearby.
“We have to chose between dying from coronavirus or of hunger and confinement,” said a woman selling tea leaves.
“Today we choose to live,” she said.
Ninety per cent of Madagascar’s 25 million inhabitants survive on less than one dollar per day. Hunger is a daily reality for most and many children do not attend school.
– Antiseptic plants –
Far from packing up her business, the tea-leaf vendor had seized the coronavirus pandemic as a sales opportunity.
Her stall was lined with the newly popular “katrafay” (cedrelopsis grevei), “ravitsara” (cinnamomum camphora) and “kinina fotsy” (eucalyptus grandis) — plants known for their antiseptic properties.
Madagascans have been stocking up on them, eager to disinfect their homes, causing prices to zoom tenfold.
The prices of lemon and ginger have also rocketed. Touted as immunity-boosters, they are now respectively priced at 2,000 Malagasy ariary (50 cents) and 6,000 (1.5 euros) per kg.
Shops were also swamped with customers and struggled to limit the number of people at the checkout tills to four at a time — the new maximum imposed.
Cashiers hid behind makeshift face masks made of toilet paper.
One woman placed beer crates on her conveyor belt in an attempt to maintain a safe distance between shoppers.
All cleaning agents and anti-bacterial sprays had been plucked from the shelves.
“There is no more hand sanitiser,” read a notice at the entrance.