Malawians yesterday started feeling the enhanced impact of precautionary measures to prevent the coronavirus (Covid-19) with commuters forced to pay double the normal fares on routes nationwide.
The situation has prompted some players in the economy to ask government to cushion the people from the devastating effect through safetynet programmes.
Spot-checks yesterday indicated that bus fares for both cityline and intercity minibuses doubled. For instance, routes that normally cost K300 in Blantyre City had operators asking passengers to pay K600. The fare for Blantyre to Salima on a minibus is now K10 000 from K6 000.
The minibus operators were apparently reacting to Covid-19 precautionary measures announced by the Special Cabinet Committee on Coronavirus that included a reduction in passenger capacity for both minibuses and big buses as well as private passenger vehicles.
In Lilongwe, the fare on the Area 23 route has also doubled to K600 while the intercity travellers between Lilongwe and Blantyre have been slapped with a 33 percent hike from K6 000 to K8 000. Some operators have, however, maintained the old fares, apparently in a bid to woo more passengers.
Commenting on the increase, Blessings Mbewe, one of the minibus drivers on the Limbe-Mangochi route, said the hikes have been effected by the drivers to meet their daily targets.
But one of the passengers, Stephano Kamwendo, expressed shock at the increase in fares. He suggested that government should have looked at the implications of reducing carrying capacity on passengers.
He said: “Why pushing all the burden on us passengers alone? In other countries, governments are contributing something to their citizens regarding the pandemic. Government needs to do something to rescue us from the situation.”
In a telephone interview yesterday, Minister of Information, Civic Education and Communications Technology Mark Botomani, who is also the official government spokesperson, said government only looked at the impact of the pandemic when coming up with the order to reduce carrying capacity.
He said people should understand that the order is temporary while government observes the coronavirus situation.
Said Botomani: “You know that we are in crisis right now. This is cutting across all sectors in the economy. It’s not only the transport sector, but we will continue to observe what is going on in the transport sector and we will engage them [operators] for possible reduction of those fares.”
The minister pleaded with passengers to review their travel plans in the thick of the crisis by, among others, considering walking.
Said Botomani: “If you are coming from Chitawira to Kanjedza, you can walk instead of taking a minibus.”
On measures to cushion Malawians from the burden, Minister of Finance, Economic Planning and Development Joseph Mwanamvekha said government is developing a programme to mitigate the impact of the coronavirus pandemic in the country.
He said the programme is in its final processes to find ways of assisting Malawians, taking into account the country’s limited resource base.
Said Mwanamvekha: “We are looking at the gross domestic product of the country. The impact of coronavirus on a number of sectors like manufacturing, transport, health and other sectors and we have analysed on that.
“We have also analysed on the impact of the budget both on the revenue and expenditure. We will do it together with the Reserve Bank on the monitory side and on the government side will be dealing with the fiscal side.”
Last week, the Employers Consultative Association of Malawi (Ecam) asked government to suspend some taxes such as Pay As You Earn (Paye) and Value Added Tax (VAT) to enable people have increased disposable income, especially in the event of a national lockdown.
But Mwanamvekha was elusive on Ecam’s proposals. He said government has received a number of requests from different sectors and would respond to some of them.
Reacting to the price increase, Consumers Association of Malawi executive director John Kapito described government’s order to reduce bus carrying capacity as unfair, saying the decision was aimed at punishing passengers.
He said: “What was government thinking when it said two passengers on a seat? That was obvious that the fare would go up, unless if government said it would pay for the other spaces.”
Last week, Malawi Confederation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry chief executive officer Chancellor Kaferapanjira asked government and stakeholders to engage on how they can work together to curb the threat of Covid-19 and ensure that the pandemic’s impact on the economy is minimised.
To date, the virus has rapidly spread from Wuhan City in China to Europe to the United States of America and about 44 African countries. There are so far 910 000 reported Covid-19 cases with 45 000 deaths worldwide. Malawi has also imposed restrictions on travel, closed schools and suspended gatherings of more than 100 people.