Covid-19: Alarm as busloads arrive in villages from city

Friday July 10 2020

A conductor loads luggage onto a Sema Sacco matatu, that operates in Kitui, Machakos and Nairobi, at the OTC bus stage on July 9, 2020. PHOTO | DENNIS ONSONGO | NATION MEDIA GROUP


On Thursday evening, two buses pulled up at Chavakali terminus in Vihiga County, sending waves of excitement in the air as the first batch of PSV travellers from Nairobi made it back home.

On board the 42-seater Eldoret Express and 65-seater Climax buses were 30 and 40 passengers respectively, an assortment of household items ranging from beds and mattresses to seats and water jerrycans – a sign that many of the passengers might not be going back to Nairobi any time soon, perhaps after losing their sources of livelihood.

Early Friday  morning, the Eldoret Express bus made a return journey to Nairobi but with only three passengers on board, an indication that the rural folk are not eager to visit the capital city.

The trend has been observed across the western region, where travel bookings to Nairobi remain low, compared with arrivals , even as business starts picking up after President Uhuru Kenyatta lifted the cessation of movement order.

Commuters from Nairobi and Mombasa counties – dubbed Covid-19 hotspots – have started streaming back to the village.

In Vihiga, for instance, by Friday, only 19 people had made inquiries about travel to Nairobi but had not made any bookings. Several PSV operators plying the Nairobi-Mombasa routes are also yet to hit the road as they seek to comply with Ministry of Health protocols.


Many of the operators across the region had converted their fleets into courier services to remain afloat amid the difficult economic times.


Passengers wait at the Machakos country bus stage to board a bus to the Western region, July 8, 2020. PHOTO | SILA KIPLAGAT | NATION MEDIA GROUP


In Migori, while bus operators are slowly restoring services, private vehicles and shuttles are already making a killing, charging up to Sh3,500 from Nairobi.

On Friday morning, Nairobi-bound commuters jammed the Migori bus park to book travel tickets at the few bus companies that had resumed operations.

A spot check in several offices in Migori and Rongo towns established that only two bus companies, Easy Coach and Ena Coach, had resumed operations. Their offices had recorded full bookings on Thursday, with the numbers expected to go even higher in the coming week.

Migori Matatu Operators Association chairman George Rarieda said that despite the reopening, many commuters were still shunning public vehicles preferring private ones for fear of contracting Covid-19. Travellers who spoke to the the Nation said they were stuck in villages, with some risking losing their jobs following the reopening.

“I am going back to start from scratch after I was fired for absconding duty despite seeking official leave,” said Rita Nancy, a secretary at a private firm in Nairobi.

Clifford Otieno, another traveller, decried the increased bus fares which he said had tripled owing to the regulations on social and physical distancing.

“Some vehicles are charging between Sh3,000 and Sh3,500 to Nairobi, up from Sh1,000. This is very expensive and I am forced to leave my family behind,” he lamented.

In Kakamega, the number of passengers travelling to different destinations in western region, including Mumias, Bungoma, Busia, Webuye and Kitale, has steadily grown in the past two days. But buses plying the Nairobi route are yet to resume services. Operators said there were few travellers due to the increased fares.

The fares from Nairobi to Kakamega have increased from Sh1,200 to Sh3,000.

Those travelling are mostly traders who are struggling to get their businesses up and running after a three-month disruption due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

At the main bus stage, matatus plying Kakamega to Kisumu, Eldoret and Kitale are doing brisk business. Boda boda and tuk tuk operators have sprung back to life, ferrying residents from one end of the town to another, signalling that normalcy is creeping back.


Buses are parked at the Modern Coast yard in Mombasa County on July 8, 2020 as operators race to meet requirements for travel to other counties. PHOTO | KEVIN ODIT | NATION MEDIA GROUP


Taxi operators have reappeared in Kakamega and Mumias town, despite the slow economic activities. They are hopeful that the situation will improve in the next few days.

In neighbouring Kisumu, Matatu Owners Association Kisumu branch chair James Ochieng wants the county government to reopen the bus park, although Governor Anyang Nyong’o has indicated that he will not do that soon.

"We are pleading with the county government to help the matatu industry by opening the bus park now that the President has authorised the reopening of the economy," said Mr Ochieng.

Bus companies Eldoret Express, Nairobi Bus, Crown Bus and shuttles like Safari Press, Mololine, Sasa line and Western Shuttle are already actively plying the Kisumu-Nairobi route. Periska Bus Limited manager Nicholas Madanje said they were readying to hit the road after fumigating their buses and testing their drivers.

"We have tried to comply with the government regulations. Our drivers are tested and buses are fumigated," said Mr Madanje.

In Bomet and Kericho counties, a spot check by the Nation established that private and public service vehicles were back on the roads ferrying people to and from Nairobi. Richard Sinei, the Bomet branch chairman of Narok Line Sacco said many owners of passenger service vehicles had converted them to other uses due to loss of business in the last three months.

"Most of the vehicles are now being fitted with seats which had been removed after they were converted to transport goods. Business is slowly picking up," said Mr Sinei.


Hawkers are pictured along Haile Selassie Avenue in Nairobi on June 1, 2020. PHOTO | EVANS HABIL | NATION MEDIA GROUP


Hawkers, small-scale traders, supermarkets and hotels are reporting favourable business due to increased human traffic.

"Oranges, cabbages, beans and various goods are now being transported to Nairobi in huge quantities with the markets having been opened up," said Mr Simon Koech, the Kenya National Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KNCCI) Kericho branch chairman.

In Kisii, a few passengers started travelling to Nairobi on Thursday after bus owners secured clearance from the government having complied with the Ministry of Health guidelines.

At least two travelling companies, Transline and Ena coach, have complied and resumed services.

“We are charging Sh1,500 per passenger to Nairobi up from the previous Sh1,000 since we reduced the number of passengers by 50 per cent. We are also doing normal operations to Kisumu” said Ena Coach CEO Richard Mogire.

At Transline, the branch manager in Kisii Evans Arigisi said they had resumed normal operations despite a few hitches.

Passengers who spoke to the Nation were excited that they could finally travel, with some disclosing that they had incurred losses amounting to millions due to lost business.

“I travelled to Kisii to check on my family and left my business in Nairobi only to be locked here for more than three months now,” said Mr Joseph Mose.

In Homa Bay, travel companies were Friday still preparing to start operations to Nairobi.

In Siaya, private vans are taking advantage of lack of buses plying the Nairobi route to ferry passengers.


Travellers wait at the Machakos country bus stage to board matatus that ply the Kitui, Machakos and Nairobi routes, July 9, 2020. PHOTO | DENNIS ONSONGO | NATION MEDIA GROUP


In central region, since the President opened up movement to and from Nairobi, the public service vehicles have recorded business boom as city residents flocked the villages.

In Murang’a, Governor Mwangi wa Iria said visitors from Nairobi and Thika towns are the most proximate urbane partners.

“I have noted with concern that our matatu termini are now busy as visitors flock to our county. I have also noted that businessmen who had been locked from shopping for stock in Nairobi and Thika have resumed movements; all I urge is caution,” he said.

Murang’a county commissioner Mohammed Barre said social businesses have started recording visitors from the previously locked counties.

“Burial ceremonies are the most affected and we have ordered all chiefs and their assistants to ensure public health protocols are observed in those burials,” he said.

However, barmaids continue to complain that they have been send deeper into poverty since the President did not open up bars.

Businessmen complained that the economy is starved of cash flow owing to reduced purchase power induced by the negative effects of the pandemic.

And in Marsabit, county leaders are scratching their heads over the massive influx of urban dwellers into the county since the easing of the restriction.

The county Covid-19 emergency committee is alarmed by the exodus from Nairobi and other towns into the county.

Marsabit County Commissioner Evans Achoki, who doubles as the committee’s vice-chairperson, revealed that they have received reports of droves of urban dwellers scrambling for seats to travel back to the county.

“A quick action is required to address safety concerns and the impacts of the increasing mobility following the easing of the partial lockdown by the President,”Mr Achoki said.

Reporting by Benson Amadala, Derick Luvega, Vitalis Kimutai, Benson Ayienda, George Odiwuor, Elizabeth Ojina, Dickens Wasonga, Ian Byron, Mwangi Muiruri and Jacob Walter.