By Vanessa Akoth

In Kenya, over 249,000 have contracted covid since the outbreak of the pandemic was first announced in March 2020. The average daily covid infection rates have been ranging from 6 to 10 percent, according to the Ministry of Health statistics. Public transport has been identified as one of the super-spreaders of the pandemic.

Hence, since in March 2020 public transport companies were ordered by the government to carry a maximum of 60% of their carrying capacities to enable passengers to maintain social distancing. The Ministry of Health ordered those operating a 14-seater and 25-seater matatus to carry eight and fifteen passengers respectively.

Thus, the public transport sector lost revenue amounting to about 31 billion shillings due to the stringent COVID-19 containment measures, according to the Chairperson of the Association of Bus Operators Edwin Mukabana.

Despite the highly infectious Delta variant of COVID-19, Kenya’s Public Service Vehicles (PSVs) in August resumed their pre-COVID-19 operation mode of carrying full passenger capacity. This is after the government and the transport sector stakeholders signed a Memoranda of Understanding to allow the industry players to self-regulate.

Speaking to the press on 6th August, 2021, the Chief Administrative Secretary for Transport Chris Obure, said the ministry and the transport sector stakeholders had agreed to have a self-regulating mechanism to ensure operators comply with the protocols.

The signed MOU involved strict measures to be observed by PSV operators to protect passengers against contacting and spreading SARS-COV-2.

The rules included: fumigation of matatus and buses after every trip, temperature screening using contact free thermometers, compulsory hand sanitization for passengers before boarding public vehicles and wearing masks properly while in transit. In addition, hawking, preaching and begging in PSVs were outlawed among other rules.

Mr. Obure added that SACCOs found to be violating these stated protocols would have their licenses revoked.

Passengers boarding a bus in Nairobi

Having welcomed this move by the government, the matatu industry has experienced mixed reaction as the self-regulation option ha been partly successful and unsuccessful, especially among matatu operators plying the Nairobi Metropolitan routes.

Among the transporters following the rule is the Galaxy Shuttles, operated by Galaxy Travelers, which operates from its base near the Railway station, in downtown Nairobi. From here, the Shuttles line up to transport passengers to different destinations around the country. Here, passengers pay for their seats at the booking office then proceed to have their temperatures checked and hand sanitized before finally being allowed into the vehicles. They are also constantly reminded to mask properly throughout the journey.

“In a day we dispatch 35 vehicles to various destinations around the country and all are thoroughly fumigated on a weekly basis,” said John Mwoma an accountant with the Galaxy Travels that owns the Galaxy Shuttles.

Mwoma mentioned how cautious they have been not to go against the MOU they signed with the government in August this year. But it is costly to follow the rules as stipulated in the MOU. For example, at the beginning when the government gave the directive on proper public means sanitation, they would use Ksh 50,000 (about USD 500) weekly to pay a company that was doing the fumigation for them on a contract basis which ended after six months.

To bring the cost down, the company, has resorted to doing the fumigation of their vehicles by themselves and have been able to save up to Ksh 30,000 (about USD 300) per week.

“The rules put in place by the company cannot be breached, as there are consequences to going against them,” said Timothy Wanzala, a matatu driver with the company. Galaxy Travels suspends employees who defy the rules and put the company at risk of being punished by the authorities for violating COVID-19 guidelines.

Wanzala says he occasionally encounters stubborn passengers who choose to go against the requirement of wearing masks while in transit, with some complaining of how they cannot breathe with their masks on throughout the long journeys.

The Guardian, that has been in operation in Kenya since 2007, is another passenger travel company that is complying with the conditions of the COVID-19 rules as stipulated in the MOU.

“We have resumed travel as stated earlier by the government, “says Griffins Orina, an employee of the Guardian Company, adding that the company is following the government’s orders to the letter. It screens customers’ temperature with thermo guns and ensure that they sanitize their hands before they enter the vehicles.

The drivers are also given hand sanitizers that are refilled from time to time and are permanently kept in their busses and mini buses to ensure that passengers sanitize during the journey as necessary.

Christopher Omondi, a frequent traveler with the Guardian Buses  plying Nairobi to Homabay county route, says the company is strict with the COVID-19 protocols and ensures every passenger adheres to the regulations throughout the journey.

“When boarding the bus at the Guardian offices in Homabay County for Nairobi recently, my temperature was first screened, then hand sanitized and I also had to properly wear my mask before being shown to my seat,” he said.

Due to the high costs the Guardian company has suffered from hiring sanitation companies to help fumigate their vehicles, they enrolled their employees to a two-day fumigation training against COVID-19 organized by the County Government of Kisumu.

These employees only work at night when all vehicles are back at the company with each station operating with one employee each, Orina intimated.

According to Orina, before the process of fumigation begins, the vehicles that operated during the day are first taken to the car wash located within the Guardian company premise and properly washed to remove dust and dirt.

The fumigation process begins with one wearing personal protective gears to protect them from coming into contact with the chemicals. In a spray pump, Ammonia, Chlorine and water are mixed to the knowledge of the fumigation expert (exterminator) until the desired consistency is reached.

A bus being fumigated

The vehicle’s doors and windows are to remain open for purpose of adequate ventilation while disinfecting. Targeted and sprayed areas in the vehicle are usually seats, arm rests, door handles, windows, doors and belt buckles.

This is however not the case for other SACCOs operating within the city as they are openly flouting the COVID-19 rules to help curb the infection rates.

Every morning and evening Liz Kiogora, a commuter, uses PSV to travel to and from work. She lives at Kahawa Wendani and works along Moi Avenue in Nairobi central Business District. Kahawa Wendani is a low income, heavily populated estate, in the outskirts of Nairobi.

Speaking to ScienceAfrica, Kiogora said that the industry was not doing much to help contain the spread of the virus since matatu operators do not take passengers’ temperatures nor give hand sanitizers to its customers in the vehicles she uses. “It is, therefore, the mandate of each individual to take up the responsibility of shielding themselves against contacting the virus,” Kiogora added.

“Hand sanitizers and masks are my daily essentials. I cannot leave the house without any of these personal protective gears as I will be inviting the disease for myself,” noted Kiogora. She says that, she has friends who died as a result of infection by the virus within a short period after infection, and cannot afford to be ignorant about the virus.

Some PSVs operating in Nairobi city

However, Grace Kinuthia, a conductor operating a matatu plying Thika Road said “travelers are so reluctant to use the hand antiseptics we give them at the entrance of the vehicles and I realized that most people prefer to use their own hand sanitizers which they carry with them.”

“Another observation I have made during my line of duty is that some people are voluntarily wearing their masks all through their journey.”

Kinuthia says in the beginning when the government licensed PSVs back to normal operations, they incorporated all the suggested requirements into their travel routine. However, after instances of passengers openly disregarding the guidelines and also due to high cost of the materials, they ceased using thermo guns to screen for temperatures and hand sanitizers.

Kinuthia added: “Matatus, unlike supermarkets and offices, do not have an organized way of letting in people. Reason being that as a conductor I am expected to go around persuading people to board my vehicle and in the process my driver and I might not be able to fully attend to passengers entering the matatu. So it always ends up that most people don’t sanitize their hands and their temperatures are not screened as I am partially available.”

Even so, she says that the hand sanitizer is permanently placed at the entrance of the vehicle by for those willing to use it.

Mr Orina critics the decision by the government to let the industry resume carrying passengers at full capacity. Instead he says, they would have maintained the social distancing protocol but allowed PSVs to operate both during the day and during the night.

This, he says, is because vehicles operating from Nairobi to other counties still have to deal with loses as the last vehicle is dispatched at 2.00 p.m. in the afternoon to ensure it gets to its destination before curfew hours. Therefore, it is not business back to normal for every stakeholder in the matatu industry.