It has been two months since the first case of Coronavirus was announced, and just over a month since a dawn to dusk curfew was instituted by the government of Kenya. The country’s informal settlements are still teeming with activity. The little roads are ever full and the open-air markets roar every morning with people who simply cannot afford to stay at home or away from each other.
Duncan Moore, in a story for Aljazeera, interviewed Yohana Ondieki, a community leader in Kibera, the largest informal settlement in the capital, Nairobi, and home to about a quarter of a million people.
“People are scared, but here in the slum we work hand-to-mouth,” he said. “If you don’t work you don’t eat. If you earn one dollar you can’t save it, you must feed your whole family.”
This paints the picture of not just the residents of Kibera or Nairobi’s other 39 neighbourhoods classified as slums, but that of 10 million Kenyans – or 22% of the country’s population – who the government says live in the informal settlements in Kenya.
Crowded and without sufficient water, hygiene, and sanitation services, experts warn that transmission of the new Coronavirus is more likely in such settlements. The measures recommended by the World Health Organization to reduce spread of Coronavirus like enhanced personal hygiene, (especially regular hand washing), to keep physical distance from other, (thus reducing the density of people in any one place), and to avoid touching potentially contaminated surfaces especially in public places, are simply untenable in such places.
Without solutions that will protect the poor and vulnerable from infection, progress in stopping the pandemic’s spread made elsewhere may be in jeopardy of being reversed in these vulnerable neighborhoods.
Shining Hope for Communities, or SHOFCO, is a local community NGO working with the residents of 10 informal settlements across Kenya to prevent the spread of Coronavirus and prepare local communities to deal with its socio-economic impacts.
They spoke about addressing the basic problems of access to clean water and soap for hand-washing, making face masks available to the urban poor, and facing up to the economic impacts of COVID-19 in the informal settlements where up to 80 percent of residents have partially or completely lost their income according to a report by the Ministry of Health and Population Council.
The report further states that just 7% of slum dwellers are receiving some kind of help through state and non-state actors, leaving more than 9 million people hungry and in danger of infection.
Ministry of Health data indicates that cases of COVID-19 are on the rise in the informal settlements, deepening inequality in a country that is already one of the most unequal in the world according to Oxfam.
Out of Kenya’s 47 million people, just 8,300 of them–or less than 0.1%–own more wealth than the bottom 99.9%. Now, with economic growth forecasts having been revised downwards, it is clear that the poor will struggle even more to bounce back post-COVID.
In its survey of the socio-economic impacts of COVID-19 on Kenya’s economy, the United Nations University – World Institute of Development Economics Review UNU-WIDER – indicates that workers in the informal sector (which accounts for 83% of total employment as of 2018), casual labourers, and daily-wage earners in the formal sector, will be hardest hit.
As an immediate measure, UNU-WIDER recommends budgetary reallocations towards critical sectors and the provision of safety nets to the most vulnerable. Going forward however, the country will need to re-engineer the economy around the poor majority as a way of minimizing the impact of future shocks on poor and vulnerable groups.