By Emma Black

Mama Sue’s Bar and Restaurant has been a local eating and drinking establishment in Freetown for over 17-years. Susan Koffey, operated a thriving eatery specialising in Nigerian and Ghanaian food and employing 10 food service and cooking staff, until the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in Sierra Leone.

By mid-July 2020, “Mama Susan” had laid off eight of her staff members, all women, reduced the amount of food she prepared, and lost millions of Leones in sales under the COVID-19 prevention measures instituted by the National COVID-19 Emergency Response Centre (NaCOVERC).

“I have only two members of staff left and I laid off eight others because business is so bad at the moment. There’s no profit anymore and I’m just trying to survive and sustain my family, for now,” Mama Susan lamented.

 “Because of the restrictions, the preventive measures under COVID-19, the curfew, and reduced hours for bars and restaurants, my business has suffered,” she added.

The hospitality sector has been the hardest hit by the NaCOVERC COVID-19 prevention regulations. The night curfew and a mandatory reduction in hours of operations of bars and restaurants (two to three hours before the curfew) have greatly reduced the income of bar and restaurant owners, which directly affects food service, kitchen, and bar staff.

Indirectly, the curfew and reduction in operating hours have also negatively affected people who made their living from activities around the bars such as commercial sex workers, petty traders selling cigarettes and chewing gum, taxi drivers, etc. The curfew significantly affected the economic activities of people who work at night – waitresses, bar owners, commercial motorbike riders, taxi drivers, commercial sex workers, etc.

The vast majority of workers who lost their jobs in the hospitality industry, had their working hours reduced and their incomes slashed are women.

Jestina Amara is a waitress at Krio Wendy’s, a popular bar near the downtown business district of Freetown. She is luckily still employed although she no longer receives the monthly salary of Le750,000 she received up to the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Jestina said, “Because of the COVID-19 restrictions and curfew, over 20 of my friends have lost their job – they mainly worked as waitresses and bar servers. Two of our colleagues were laid off and left Freetown for their villages when the restrictions came into effect.”

Between March 2020 and March 2021 – from the announcement of the first case of COVID-19 in Sierra Leone to the end of the State of Emergency – the National COVID-19 Emergency Response Centre (NaCOVERC) instituted a variety of measures meant to reduce the transmission of COVID-19, the cases of the disease and deaths. The night curfew, reduced hours of operations, and closure of bars and restaurants had perhaps the biggest impact on the economy and lives of a large proportion of women.

NaCOVERC’s Risk Communication Lead, Harold Thomas, said the reduction in working hours and closure of bars and restaurants was one of the measures to prevent the transmission of COVID-19.

He noted, “It was pretty much the same all over the world. Countries and cities closed bars and restaurants because they were potential ‘super-spreaders’ of the virus.”

Thomas added, “Allowing bars and restaurants to be open for regular hours would potentially amplify transmission of the virus. In bars and restaurants, it’s almost impossible to maintain all the protocols of facemasks and physical distancing so it was better to reduce the time people spend in these potentially vulnerable places.”

Julius Spencer PhD, of NaCOVERC, said bars, restaurants, and nightclubs are social venues where crowds gather – often with weak prevention protocols such as physical distancing and facemasks. “So, NaCOVERC tried to prevent significant transmission by limiting time in social venues and even religious halls or marketplaces,” Dr. Spencer added.

Restaurants and bars were required to close up to 2-3 hours before the 11 pm curfew. This further restricted their income but, according to Thomas, this was to allow customers and workers get home before the curfew.

Robert Dauda Korsu PhD, is an economist and the Executive Director of the Economic, Social and Financial Research Institute (ESFRI), based in Freetown, Sierra Leone. He explained that the closure limit of 9:00 pm and curfew time of 11:00 pm, for bars and restaurants create a difference of 2 hours. This he said leaves no room for community or neighbourhood sales even where there may be demand up to 10:30 pm. Korsu recommended, “Harmonising the two limits with preference for the later time could have played a mitigating role on livelihood reduction for women. It requires calibrating the optimal implementation time to manage both economic livelihood impact and the expected health result.”

Mohamed Bah is the manager of the China-Sierra Leone Friendship Society, also known as “China House” near the government’s Youyi Building in downtown Freetown. He said, “Because of the COVID-19 regulations, business is not good. People used to spend time, buy drinks and food… but now they don’t stop in and only order takeaway.” Bah had to lay off two women workers at the facility because the business income had dropped significantly. The other three staff, all women, were put on reduced hours of work – workers now work alternate months and are not paid for the month they are off. “I couldn’t afford to pay the staff so I had to lay some off and cut the hours of others,” he said.

According to Dr. Korsu, “the truncated operations of bars and restaurants had a direct impact on their income. The result of these limitations was: reduced employment (in a sector with high vulnerable employment). Once income is reduced due to lower turnover and fewer hours of operations, some workers will be laid off to cushion the effect of reduced incomes.”

The indirect impact, identified by Korsu, involved petty traders/economic agents in the neighbourhood of bars, restaurants, and nightclubs whose economic activities are linked to operations of the bars, restaurants, and nightclubs.

Korsu summed up by saying, “The overall impact of the curfew and early closure of bars, restaurants, and nightclubs negatively affected mostly women. For the petty trade sector (informal sales agents in the vicinity of bars and restaurants) women are impacted to a far greater extent than men.”

Mama Susan now only prepares a small amount of rice and sauce at her restaurant. She has closed the bar portion of her facility. “I used to cook three bags of rice every week. Now, I only cook one bag of rice for a whole week,” she said. Her business is barely hanging on. She said she understands the need for restrictions but those same restrictions have a devastating impact on women.

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