COVID-19: Food Safety Challenges In Nigerian Markets

Food appears to be one of the casualities of the novel coronavirus pandemic going by the way it is being handled in Nigerian markets. Besides the problem of its accessibility, the pandemic has fostered unhygienic practices where they are available because many still believe the virus does not exist or they simply do not care. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “unsafe food containing harmful bacteria, viruses, parasites or chemical substances, causes more than 200 diseases-ranging from diarrhoea to cancers.” This is especially true in a place where unhygienic practices are common.

It was in the fish market in Wuhan China that the coronavirus was reportedly originated in December 2019. The virus would have been prevented if mandatory practices were adhered to. Thus the importance of market during the current battle to combat the pandemic and promote healthy society cannot be overemphasized. Using the two markets (Main and Forest) in Kuje Area Council of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Abuja as case study to understand the deplorable conditions of food handling in Nigerian markets and food outlets during the COVID-19 lockdowns and preventive restrictions. Kuje is popularly known for farms settlement and therefore opens to fresh agricultural produce.

Nigeria, the Africa’ most populous and biggest economy is reeling from the impacts of the pandemic. Already, it has recorded a caseload of 34,000 and over 750 deaths, while the disease is taking toll on public health and economic wellbeing its citizens. As a developing nation, its consequences are likely to be even more profound due to the inefficiency and ineffectiveness of regulatory authorities, market and local officials, and the general attitudes of the communities to attain international standards. Drawing from keen observation, interviews and personal interactions with food managers, buyers and sellers in Kuje markets, there was evidence of widespread violations of safety rules and guidelines. If these challenges are not checked or mitigated, they could have detrimental effects on people’s health and welfare of the nation and may fuel the spread of coronavirus.

Promoting market hygiene on safety standards along the long line offood supply chain will be conducive to maintaining good health and enhance in the treatment of covid-19 patients. This is because food contains calcium, iron, zinc, protein, vitamins, That is, in terms of food distribution, display, buying and selling, packaging and the general environment, market must foster and maintain standards of cleanliness in order to prevent another outbreak of disease. Nonetheless, it is important to note that food is part of the government’s exclusion list that can be transported across states during the pandemic lockdowns. It is difficult to ascertain its safety in terms of quality most especially in this period where suppliers could be more interested in profit and transporters’ antics to beat the security checkpoints where they are exploited before passage.

Thus, the way food is currently being handled in the two Kuje markets, Main Market and Forest Market, during this pandemic leaves much to be desired. In this sense, the Kuje markets are microcosms of typical Nigerian markets or other food outlets in the country. Majority of Nigerians obtain their groceries from these types of traditional markets where food and other consumable items are sold by conspicuously displayed to every sort of flies, dirt, dust and other harmful objects. They are too open and largely unregulated as obtains in developed world. Goods are transported into the markets in non-refrigerated and rickety vehicles or containers that are ostentatiously exposed to all kinds of wind, pest, rodent and other carriers of disease.

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According to the Australian Institute of Food Safety (AIFS) (2019), “Food Safety refers to handling, preparing and storing food in a way to best reduce the risk of individuals becoming sick from food borne illnesses.” Consuming contaminated food may worsen human immune system in which experts say need to be boosted against the COVID-19. Safety conditions or practices are generally not adhered to even prior to the pandemic. The COVID-19 exacerbated the preexisting unhealthy market and food conditions. Safety and hygiene deteriorates further amid coronavirus. Conversely, the expectation is that it is during this period to combat the virus that market safety guidelines need to be scaled up by all who come in contact with food. Kuje markets have fallen short of these standards going by what is taking place.

It is common to see motorbikes conveying beef on the seat and carriage uncovered from the abattoirs to the market prior to and during the pandemic lockdowns and restrictions. The exposed meat, vegetables and fruits regularly attract flies that are vectors of diseases, and dust on its way to the markets. COVID-19 is now being postulated by WHO to be airborne. Also, cattle for human consumption at the markets are killed under deplorable conditions at the Lanto slaughterhouse. While in the markets, the beef are placed on wooden table with flies hovering around and perching on it.

As attested to by the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), “keeping food safe is a complex process that starts on the farm and ends with the consumers.” One wonder the process veterinary officials that are saddled with the responsibility of safety are keeping reversing the unhealthy practices at this challenging time. Though this has been the practice before the advent of COVID-19, but one would have expected the safety authorities and even the consumers to require and enforce the sellers to improve their practices especially at this time of pandemic.

Indeed, the local council government and market management in accordance with the protocols and procedures put in place by the Federal Government through the Presidential Task Force (PTF) on COVID-19 has put structures, soaps and water in place at each entrance of the Main Market (none in the Forest Market) for people entering to wash hands. They are also mandatorily required to adorn themselves with facemasks. But these measures while they were strictly enforced during the early lockdowns in March and April, they are no longer administered in the markets. Today, a few shoppers could be seen with facemasks while it is hard to see them washing hands or body temperature taken.

Another revealing practice that could be said to be in flagrant violation of the social distancing regulations for the prevention of COVID-19 are the several clusters of buyers at each shop on every block of the Main Market. This happened mostly during the lockdowns where people formed crowd in front of a shop and thereby disregarded the social or physical distancing rule. Also due to the lockdowns, there were insufficiency in food supply and that promoted sharp practices among sellers with accompanied potential health risks. Foodstuffs are poured into open bowls and trays for customers. As at June 2020, Kuje has 31 COVID-19-infected persons, ranking third after Abuja Municipal Area Council and Bwari among the six area councils in the FCT as reported by the PTF. The markets could be a contributory factor to the prevalence of the disease among an estimated population of 350,000 in the town. Given the current 34,000 infected cases and over 750 deaths, Nigeria is at higher risk of the infection with its 200 million people, the most populous and biggest economy in Africa.

Also at Kuje markets, one can commend the market officials for improving the environment where people buy and sell. Pollution can spread the COVID-19 faster. Their surroundings that used to be filthy prior to the pandemic because of the dumping spot and human waste that sometime dotted the uncompleted blocks particularly in the Main Market that is located right inside the town is now in good condition. Wastes are being dropped outside the markets along the main road waiting for their collectors. The Forest Market along Pasali Road is open but usually has some dirt at the plantain and banana section. But the evacuations of the dirt are slow and this can be dangerous to human health not only on coronavirus but other infectious diseases. The practice can be improved. Though none of the markets was disinfected or fumigated during the pandemic.

Therefore, the way our markets are kept and arranged plus the Nigerians’ dispositions to safety rules and regulations says a lot about efforts to contain the COVID-19 as it is more likely to be aggravated and multiplied if unhygienic food handlings are cultivated.

So as the COVID-19 exposes food safety fault lines in Kuje markets, it is commonsensical to assert that such would be the conditions in many ways in most Nigerian markets. Mishandling of food could inflame the ongoing coronavirus crisis in Nigeria. The health, safety and wellbeing of people ought to be the priority of all at this time of pandemic. But as pointed out earlier, it is fair to say that it is not surprising that the Kuje Markets’ conditions were not very suitable to food safety. Social distancing was not applicable at the markets as explained above. As the COVID-19 infection rate is rising, use of masks, sanitizers and hand washing are presently no longer enforced or mandatory to enter the two markets. To a greater extent, Kuje residents eat at the risk of their health. This is the moment everybody should be health sensitive.

Fortunately, the COVID-19 offers a once-in-a-century opportunity to transform Nigerian markets. Whether it is in Mile 12, Kano, Calabar or Aba markets, concerted efforts should be geared to toward market turnaround to alleviate the challenges associated with food safety and be a safe place for any transmission of disease in the country. There are ways approaches that the authorities and other stakeholders in the food industry could create favourable conditions for better food handling even in the customary markets. First, market should be designed and built to discourage clumsiness that will impede free movement of buyers and sellers. This will enhance social distancing at all times. Secondly, food logistics must be improved in such a way where supplies are well preserved and delivered in line with public health procedures and in tandem with best practices. Thirdly, a lot has to be done by market officials to enforce rules and regulations for better food safety. Lastly, the public must be educated on personal food hygiene and public safety practices to promote better food handling and the overall health of the nation Accomplishing this feat will guard against food-borne illnesses and prevent future epidemic or pandemic.

Folahan Peace Babatunde, F.P. is a 300 level student of Food Science & Technology at the Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida University, Lapai, Niger state. She can be reached on Instagram @iam__fola.

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