March 24, 2020 / 3:04 PM / 6 months ago

As social distancing meets Congo, some say 'it just won't work'

KINSHASA (Reuters) - Chloe climbs out of his yellow minibus taxi to admonish a mob of commuters crowding the pavement in Democratic Republic of Congo’s capital, where authorities are trying to prevent overcrowding to fight the coronavirus.

Taxis drive along the street in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, December 20, 2018. REUTERS/Kenny Katombe/File Photo

“Ten people, ten people,” he shouts, to little effect, as the crowd swarms around the door.

Applying concepts like social distancing, where people avoid crowds and close personal contact, has proved difficult in even the most advanced economies.

But in Kinshasa, a chaotic city of 12 million people who mostly live in tightly packed dwellings and travel like sardines in shared taxis, it’s an even taller order.

Kinshasa has recorded 45 coronavirus cases since March 10, straining scarce health resources in one of the world’s poorest countries.

Last week, the government ordered bars and cafes closed. It called on drivers to reduce the number of passengers in minibus taxis from 15 to 10, and in smaller taxis to no more than three, instead of the five or six who crammed in previously.

Kinshasa’s police chief, General Sylvano Kasongo, went so far as to advise passengers not to talk to each other.

Yet as governments around the world order lockdowns and curfews, Congolese authorities are finding it difficult to enforce much more modest measures.

Even cutting down the numbers may still leave passengers too close to each other to avoid infection. And many have little choice but to crowd onto transport if they are to earn a living.

“It just won’t work,” said a civil servant as he waited for a minibus. “Look at the reality, how people rush every morning to the bus and pack themselves in.”

Andre, a motorcycle taxi driver, said he was limiting rides to one passenger at a time and instructing clients to sit as far behind him as possible.

But even some of those inclined to obey the government’s instructions find the economic costs difficult to bear. For drivers like Chloe, who are already just scraping by, fewer passengers means less income.

    “The restrictions introduced by the head of state to protect against coronavirus are good, but what we are angry about is the price of fuel, which doesn’t change,” he said.

Reporting by Benoit Nyemba; Writing by Hereward Holland; Editing by Aaron Ross and Giles Elgood

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