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How COVID-19 killed Bayelsa street markets

Before the outbreak of the novel coronavirus in Nigeria in March 2020 and its subsequent spread to Bayelsa State, street markets have been blooming in the state.

The markets spread on the streets with traders littering roadsides with their wares, contributing to traffic build-up. Several times, cars have lost control and crashed into goods and sometimes even the traders and customers, causing casualties.

On the popular East-West Road, the major gateway to the state, visitors arriving from the Port Harcourt airport have to contend with traders at the Mbiama Market, which has sprawled on the road that borders Yenagoa, the state capital and Ahoda West Local Government in Rivers State.

Also, visitors from Lagos, Warri, Benin etc, often spend hours in traffic at Zarama Market, because of traders selling at the side of the East-West Road.

So prevalent were these markets that they were constituting a nuisance, especially on market days. It took the intervention of the coronavirus for some sanity to return to Bayelsa’s roadsides. The markets have fallen silent. The traders have packed up their wares and returned to purpose built markets and the state COVID-19 task force is ensuring that the traders stay away from the streets.

Traders at popular markets such as Swali, Tombia Roundabout, Okaka, Zarama, Kpanzia, Opolo markets, all in Yenagoa, have been forced to return and sell inside their stalls in the markets in a move to enforce social distancing and maintain public hygiene. While sanitary inspections at the abattoirs in the state have also been conducted.

The Deputy Chairman of the state COVID-19 task force and Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Health, Dr Inodu Apoku had explained, during the commencement of demolition of illegal structures and relocation of street traders, that the exercise is aimed at enforcing social distancing and ease traffic along major roads in the state.

“This roadside trading is not decent enough, especially with the health challenges we have at the moment. Government has already fumigated over 600 stalls inside the market for traders to use so that their safety will be guaranteed,” he said.

On why the street markets have to fold up, Dr Apoku said, “They can never observe social distance on the roadside, so both the traders and buyers are in danger here. That is why we took this action as a government to prevent the spread of coronavirus in Bayelsa State.

“Social distancing is the World Health Organisation (WHO) protocol, and we must obey it to stay safe, beyond washing of hands, using sanitizers, the social distance must be observed. It is for the interest of everybody,” he said.

The Tombia/Etekwe Roundabout, which used to be crowded with traders before they were evicted

Already some traders at Swali, Kpansia, Opolo and Tombia markets have expressed delight over the government’s efforts in settling them inside the market stalls, saying it saves them from an imminent flood in this rainy season.

According to them, the dangers of selling by the roadsides are enormous, at times, accidents occur and cars ram into the people trading.

Mrs Godstime Timi, who sells at Swali Market told Daily Trust that where she uses now inside the market is secured and when it rains, she doesn’t feel the impact.

“Before now, we use to think that there were no buyers inside the market, but since we moved inside, we have had more buyers.

“You know the road is rowdy, you don’t know who is who. Sometimes touts harass us, but that cannot happen inside the market. Like last week that a tipper lost control near Swali Bridge, if it was when traders were selling on the road, you can imagine the number of casualties that would have been recorded,” she said.

She also said that clearing the roadside markets has improved the smooth passage of traffic in the state and commended the government for the measures.

Another trader at Tombia Market, who introduced himself as Emeka, said though the only problem they had was that government did not give them notice before the demolition of their roadside stalls, despite that, they now enjoy doing their businesses inside the market.

He even appealed to the government to build more stalls inside the market to accommodate every trader.

At Opolo Market, traders want the state government to ensure proper regulations of market levies to encourage traders to remain inside. They said if the levies are outrageous compared to what they used to pay at the roadside; they may prefer to return to the streets.

Already, the Bayelsa State Government has commenced expansion and beautification works at the popular Tombia Roundabout, which used to serve as one of the roadside markets in the state.

Deputy Governor, Senator Lawrence Ewhrudjakpo, while inspecting the expansion at Tombia recently, described the work as a proactive measure to alleviate traffic problems that would be thrown up by the Tombia Flyover project, which will soon take off.

The deputy governor’s media aide, Mr Doubara Atasi had in a statement explained that the government had already designated an alternative route for road users to avoid traffic gridlock for the period the expansion work would last.

While sympathizing with road users for the inconvenience they might face within the period, he urged them to see it as a worthwhile sacrifice for the development of the state.

“You are aware that some couple of weeks ago, the government demolished all illegal structures at the Tombia area in line with our urban renewal plan, which was one of our key campaign promises,” he said.

“We said we were going to expand the Tombia Roundabout to ease traffic flow before commencing work on the flyover there. We want to start the road expansion project. And you know, when we start, there would be some traffic gridlock.

“We are looking at the alternatives (diversions) that will be available for people to use while we do the job.

“So, we are going to do some diversion of traffic to the NIIT Road that will link Imiringi and Tinacious Road. The diversion will not affect commuters coming from the Mbiama-Igbogene end.”

He said road users would have to endure the inconvenience for a short while as he expects the work to be completed in three or four weeks before they move on to the outer ring road and then the flyover.

But without its roadside market, Bayelsa is wearing a new calm look and many residents hope the sanity will endure.