As the coronavirus continues to spread, African countries are taking strict measures to stop it. So far, the strategy has been one of containment. From nationwide shutdowns to travel bans, the hope is that by dramatically restricting the movement of people, countries can contain existing cases and avoid catastrophic outbreak that could quickly overwhelm local health systems.
In Kenya, which has confirmed more than 100 cases of the new coronavirus as of Thursday, according to government information, the latest mitigation measures came in the form of a nationwide curfew, which went into effect on March 27. The curfew restricts movements of nonessential workers between the hours of 7 p.m. and 5 a.m.
While the success of these and other measures remains to be seen, the impact of the new COVID-19 policies have already trickled down to Kenya’s most vulnerable and marginalized communities, especially as the country’s security forces seem willing to go to extreme lengths to enforce them.
“You find that some people, they don’t even have food to eat as we speak.”
“You find that some people, they don’t even have food to eat as we speak,” said Stephano Otieno, a human rights defender at the Kariobangi Social Justice Center in Nairobi, Kenya.
Kariobangi is one of Nairobi's many informal settlements where residents typically live in three-story flats built from concrete, and many families share a single room.
Kariobangi Social Justice Center has temporarily suspended its classes due to the coronavirus, but Otieno has been going door to door to educate residents about how to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Yet with the number of confirmed cases of the coronavirus still low, more people are worried that the government’s new policies could hurt them well before the virus does.
“Many people here have informal jobs whereby you aren’t being paid monthly. So you are paid as you work,” Otieno said.
As businesses in Nairobi follow government advisories to work from home, those working as security guards and domestic help are being left behind. “They are being laid off. Some are going without pay. Some have deducted [pay],” he said.
Kenyan officials have also directed public vehicles to operate at 60% capacity, which, according to Otieno, has caused fares to increase dramatically. “The matatus have hiked the prices of the fair. For example, if you are going from Kariobangi to town, you are being charged double price,” he said.
Still, Otieno says, residents are doing their best to comply with the new rules. He’s noticed fewer people having large gatherings, and more shops are putting out soap and water for people to wash their hands.
Yet even the directive for constant hand-washing and sanitizing presents a challenge for the number of residents in Kariobangi who don’t have running water.
“There’s water rationing in Kariobangi. Whereby, from Monday to Tuesday, there’s water. But from Wednesday to Sunday, they usually close the water,” said Otieno, who together with his colleagues, has been lobbying county officials to keep the water running every day.
Community activists and leaders have also been calling on the government to address the unemployment that could result from efforts to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
A similar call was echoed on Tuesday by the World Health Organization’s director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who has been calling on governments to protect their poorest communities. “People without regular incomes or any financial cushion deserve social policies that ensure dignity and enable them to comply with #COVID19 public health measures advised by national health authorities and @WHO,” he tweeted.
Kenya’s president has said he will take some measures to address this, promising 100% tax relief for low-income earners, and promising cash transfers to the elderly, orphans and other vulnerable people.
For the many Kenyans living hand to mouth even before the global pandemic, there’s little time to waste for these commitments to be realized.
“Already, the people have been adversely affected by coronavirus. People live in makeshift housing without water and other social amenities like toilets, health centers, schools, playing grounds.”
“Already, the people have been adversely affected by coronavirus,” said Daniel Wainaina who works for the Ghetto Foundation in Mathare, a slum in Nairobi. “People live in makeshift housing without water and other social amenities like toilets, health centers, schools, playing grounds.”
In recent weeks, community organizations such as the Ghetto Foundation have leaped into emergency mode, aware of the potentially deadly consequences if an outbreak of the coronavirus were to occur in an overcrowded urban neighborhood like Mathare, where few people would be able to afford a visit to the hospital.
“We have identified many vulnerable persons we have managed to send cash donations to,” Wainaina said. So far, the Ghetto Foundation has managed to raise and distribute 2,000 shillings (about $20) to more than 100 families in Mathare.
It’s a testament to how early relief during the coronavirus pandemic has come not from the highest levels of the Kenyan government, but from within the very communities that have historically been left to fend for themselves.
Still, Wainaina hopes the Kenyan government will step in soon: “We’d also appeal to the government to come to the rescue of Mathare people offering water, food and medicine, to curb the spread of the coronavirus.”
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