KIGALI (Reuters) -- Alarmed consumers thronged markets across Africa on Tuesday, many in masks and gloves, to stock up as the coronavirus spread on the world’s poorest continent.
Prices rose in some parts, though at least one country, Rwanda, sought to control costs of staple foods.
"It is as if people are preparing for war,” said an astonished shopkeeper as Rwandans clamored for rice, cooking oil, sugar and flour at a market in the capital Kigali. "Prices have gone up - but still they buy.”
Initially spared as the coronavirus battered China and then spread out, Africa has seen a rush of cases this month and governments are taking drastic measures to curb its spread.
At least 30 African nations have now reported more than 400 cases, seven in Rwanda. For many poorer Africans, panic-buying was a privilege they could not afford.
"Rich people are not afraid of high prices. They are buying in huge quantities,” said 43-year-old Pascal Murengezi, a father-of-three hawking second hand clothes outside the Nyarugenge market in Kigali who said he could not afford more than a day’s worth of food.
"If the outbreak continues, I don’t know how I will sell clothes on empty streets.”
The shopkeeper, who declined to give his name fearing a visit from inspectors, said Tanzanian rice had risen from 27,000 francs ($29) to 30,000 francs per 25 kg bag while Pakistani rice was up from 22,000 francs to 28,000 francs.
Speaking as shoppers in masks and gloves picked over items, he blamed wholesalers for the increases.
The trade ministry in Rwanda fixed prices late on Monday for 17 food items including rice, sugar and cooking oil. It did not specify punishments for price-gouging.
Exasperated by the rises, Beatrice, a 52-year-old Rwandan with a child and no job, said she could only buy a minimum of rice. "You can’t see your children go hungry,” she said. "We don’t know when this coronavirus will stop. If I had enough money, I would buy a lot more food.”
Kenya, East Africa’s economic powerhouse, also saw a rush on shops after reporting its first coronavirus case on Friday. Within minutes, shoppers at the upscale Carrefour supermarket near the United Nations complex in Nairobi began piling trolleys with wipes, sanitizer, and staples like rice and long-life milk.
Tusky’s, another Kenyan supermarket, urged customers not to panic and this week launched a home delivery service.