Five days a week, Pilira Tsambalikagwa walks from the populous Manje Township to Limbe Market to cut people’s hair or beard. Each haircut earns the 20-year-old barber between K200 and K500. On a good day, he earns K10 000 from 20 heads.
With the coronavirus outbreak discovered in China last December, the business has slowed down.
“It’s a struggle. Some days, I only have two customers. On other days, I get none,” says the man covering her mouth and nose with a head scarf instead of a face mask.
Malawi has confirmed four deaths from 443 known cases of the disease transmitted through droplets when talking, sneezing and coughing.
However, giving every head the desired touch and close interaction with customers from all walks of life makes Covid-19 precautions unattainable.
As customers are disappearing, so is the interaction that happens in barbershops and salons.
The hairdressers waiting for customers have become lonely like never before.
“Just as customers are afraid of risky interaction in barbershops, so are people who just come here to discuss politics and share jokes,” saysTsambalikagwa.
However, he is doing his best to protect himself and his customers from Covid-19 transmission in his crowded workspace.
“I cannot afford disposable masks, so, I cover my mouth with this scarf when shaving customers. Some come wearing masks while others don’t,” he says.
Hairdressing usually involves close contact with customers. As such, Tsambalikagwa regularly washes hands with soap after touching the customer’s scalp.
“Social distancing is impossible here,” he states.
Vincent Lubelo, from Soche Quarry in Blantyre, also operates a barbershop in Limbe. The 23-year-old was a casual worker in the city’s construction sites before opening the barbershop in April where he also recharges mobile phones at a fee.
He knows that his new job puts him at a disproportionate risk of contracting or spreading Covid-19 as he close to different people every day.
However, Lubelo says: “I have a life to sustain and my family looks up to me, so I can’t take chances.
“I just make sure I play it safe. I come on a bicycle instead of hitching minibuses which aren’t observing social distancing as required by the government.”
Masks or handrub?
The boy does not wear a mask but rubs hand sanitiser in his palms after grooming a customer or touching a phone.
He hopes the handrub removes the fast-spreading virus before he touches his nose, mouth or eyes.
Hairdresser Edith Tchale, 25, from Namiyango Township in Blantyre, says she protects herself and her customers from Covid-19 by frequently washing hand.
“Sometimes I also put on gloves when serving customer’s hair. However, some hairstyles, especially braiding, are best done with bare hands,” she says.
Yet she doesn’t wear a mask because “it makes it hard to communicate with customers”.
“Some customers wear masks, but they say it makes breathing difficult for them,” she says.
Takondwa Pingasa—who specialises in hairdressing, manicure and pedicure at Kudya in Blantyre—is concerned about customers shunning hair salons due to the coronavirus outbreak.
“Business is falling. I used to have between four and six customers a day, but now a week passes by without a single customer,” he says.
Even customers who used to call her to groom them in the comfort of their homes have stopped phoning her, Pingasa states.
“It seems they are even afraid of having us in their homes. We just hope that things get back to normal before we lose them for good,” says Blessings Thumpula, who commutes from Green Corner to his uptown barbershop in Blantyre central business district (CBD).
No social distancing
Grace Chiunguzeni, a hairdresser in downtown Blantyre, is also feeling the pinch of Covid-19. The Chilomoni-based hair artist says while the count of customers is dwindling, her biggest worry is how to protect herself from the virus and surfaces where infected droplets land.
“I can’t observe social distancing since I come here to fend for myself and family. I just make sure to observe the precautions I can afford. These include regularly washing hands with soap and wearing face masks,” she says.
Most uptown hair parlours have set aside buckets for hand-washing, but many low-income businesses have none.
Those who can afford gloves and masks sometimes wear them until they are soiled.
Dr Titus Divala, who specialises in disease outbreaks, urges hair makers to strictly ensure that every person entering their workspace should wash hands with soap and wear a face mask.
He states: “Barbershops and salons welcome different people every day, making risky places starting from the doorstep.
“After assisting a customer, they should also disinfect the seat and everything the person touched. It is going to be expensive, but it will help save lives. The best people can do is to limit activities to those that are really necessary. It will be sad to hear that one got Covid-19 from a barbershop or salon.”
As they struggle to protect themselves, their businesses and customers, the hair artists are aware that they may not do business as they knew it before the pandemic. Meanwhile, some customers awed by the risk of coronavirus transmission bring personal callipers, aprons, towels and other props.