Crowd management is a tricky business at the best of times. Nowhere does this issue seem more relevant right now than in markets, as they are normally crowded places, and the requirement—part of measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus—that at least 2 meters of physical distance be maintained between sellers and buyers is creating chaos. Municipal authorities across Myanmar are struggling to position market vendors at a safe distance from one another. Many have failed to come up with a good solution.
One notable exception, however, is the tourist town of Kalaw in southern Shan State. Officials there have come up with a simple and innovative idea; behind an open-air market a road has been divided up into sections with painted lines to keep each seller 6 feet (1.8 meters) apart while allowing shoppers to keep a proper distance to browse produce.
The idea has drawn praise, and not only in Myanmar—last week the market was featured in Thai and Vietnamese media, and was wrongly identified on social media as being located in Mizoram, northeast India. In Myanmar, the idea is being held up as an example for others to follow.
“The main aim is to avoid disrupting the usual trade flow while allowing local farmers and vendors to sell their produce at a safe distance,” said Daw Pyone Kathy Naing, a National League for Democracy lawmaker who represents Kalaw, talking about her brainchild.
She said the idea originated when she saw government data showing how much it would cost to provide the poor with basic food items during the Thingyan holidays.
“The data suggested it would cost about 120 million kyats [nearly US$85,000] a day for Kalaw alone,” she said, explaining that the government simply could not afford to support all local residents while enforcing a total lockdown.
“Local sellers of essential food cannot stay home all the time; therefore we came up with an alternative way to continue their daily routines, but in less crowded circumstances,” she added.
Since April 18, the Kalaw Myoma market has opened from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m., closing every fifth day. All vendors must be residents of the Kalaw area.
Inspired by the idea, authorities in Pantanaw Township of Ayeyarwady Region and Myawaddy in Karen State followed suit last week, according to pictures shared on Facebook, Myanmar’s most popular social media platform.
U Thant Zin Aung, a Karen State parliamentarian from Myawaddy constituency, said the system allowed daily-wage workers and vendors to keep their jobs, while encouraging the practice of social distancing as a response to the coronavirus.
Daw Pyone Kathy Naing said: “I am happy to see others replicate the idea, and follow our safe market standard.”
However, the open market design would be much harder to apply in big cities like Yangon, where markets are normally tucked away down narrow streets and shoppers must nudge their way through the crowd.