Kenya: How Kibera Slum Is Coping With Coronavirus Threat

Kibera slum
Kibera slums

Nairobi’s slum dwellers are only slowly ditching the twisted belief that the deadly coronavirus ravaging the world is a rich man’s disease amid sensitization drives.

It’s not hard to see why people held the mentality that the pandemic was allergic to the poor. Kenya has recorded seven cases, all of them imported into the country by people jetting in from overseas.

This belief was further strengthened by the fact that Covid-19 was seen to have taken longer to arrive in Africa, with the initial outbreaks having been largely reported in Europe, America and Asia. Experts have since attributed this to the continent’s low overseas travel volumes compared to the rest of the world while the World Health Organisation (WHO) suspects many cases have gone unreported with people unknowingly carrying the virus. Signs could range from mild to severe.

Carolina for Kibera (CFK), a non-governmental organisation based in Nairobi’s Kibera slum, alongside the Health ministry is on a mission to clear these misconceptions among the residents amid the corona reality. Kibera slum, on the outskirts of the capital, hosts about 400,000 residents and is the largest informal settlement in the region.

Households in the neighbourhood are slowly awakening to the new culture of regular hand washing and slathering their palms with sanitisers amid growing campaigns by the government, the media and other stakeholders.

 “In our campaigns, we have encountered many residents with myths and misconceptions. Some say it’s a rich man’s disease, attacking only those that travel abroad; others say it only affects the elderly; others have heard that it can’t survive in the warm tropical weather while others believe the black man’s melanin is their shield, obviously as a result of not having full information,” said Eddah Ogogo, a primary health care program coordinator at CFK.

“Some even think it’s a normal cold and can’t quite tell the difference from the symptoms of Covid -19 which could sound similar to a layman. They wonder what’s the big deal with a common flu?”

To turn the tide of misinformation and half-truths, the NGO is printing posters with precautionary info on Covid-19 alongside sensitisation drive by trained volunteers as a complement to the government’s ongoing media efforts and SMS alerts.

The flu-like corona pathogen is transmitted through respiratory droplets from an infected person when they sneeze or cough, alongside handshakes or body contact. Also by touching a surface or object or bank notes contaminated with the virus that assaults victims in a similar fashion like pneumonia. Social distancing and washing hands with soap and running water are seen as powerful ammunitions in the war against the bug – tools that poor homes, however, have no luxury of.

 “We have asked people who have flu-like symptoms to reach out to the nearby health facility in Kibera and get a mask. This is primarily to prevent respiratory droplets from getting into contact with the rest of the family members in the house. At the same time, those who display corona-like symptoms including shortness of breath are checked in for referral,” said Ogogo.

Last week, as middle class households went on a maddening shopping spree, stockpiling essentials, soap, disinfectants and hand sanitisers with the confirmation of a first case in Kenya, it was business as usual in the informal settlements. It was a tale of two cities, a land of stark contrasts.

While the Kenyan government has imposed partial lockdown and urged self-quarantines, observing the restrictions is proving difficult for poor families, which lack a rainy day fund.

Most slum dwellers live hand to mouth, and failure by breadwinners to go out and do casual jobs could mean going to bed hungry.

“Self-quarantine is extremely hard for us. Our houses are very small. Most of us live in single room with our entire family. There’s no proper ventilation, the windows are tiny and the houses are very close to each other,” said Elizabeth Akinyi, a hawker and community health volunteer at CFK offices in Kibera.

“You can imagine myself, my husband and my children crammed in a tiny, dusty room. It’s not only uncomfortable but could even pose health risks,” she said, pointing out that under the conditions, it’s hard to prevent her children from playing outside.

Another curveball is access to clean water in the slum, let alone running water, she says.

Kibera is dotted with overcrowded shacks, and grapples with poor sanitation and grinding poverty that successive governments have done little to change.

It’s mainly made up of shacks – mud-walled structures with corrugated tin roofs – owned by slumlords without title deeds.

The World Bank has previously called out the government over failure to modernise the settlement even as cash-hungry slumlords and politicians block possible upgrades for self-interests. Kibera’s lords of poverty, who are yet to be unmasked, mint millions of shillings from rent and service charge cash from the predicament of thousands of slum dwellers.

Kenya’s economy is robbed of $1 billion (Sh100 billion) in missed capital value for not developing the slum, according to the World Bank.

Akinyi says that she has been conducting awareness campaigns on Covid-19 after receiving training from the NGO. She also follows news on the Covid-19 on TV to stay up-to-date.

“Most people around here are used to washing their hands only before and after eating, they don’t wash hands for any other reason, not even after visiting the toilet. So you can imagine the difficulty that comes with trying to shift their perception and habits to start cleaning their hands regularly,” said Akinyi.

“Some, including mama mboga (roadside vegetable hawkers) argue that God will protect them should the disease strike while downplaying the role of preventive measures against infections,” she said, adding that she’s trying her level best to shift such backward attitudes.

Wanting to portray herself as a role model and to instill good behaviour among her neighbours and fellow hawkers, Akinyi is leading by example.

“I have placed a hand washing equipment outside my house. Anyone entering my house must wash their hands before entering.”

A cleanliness evangelist, Akinyi has also preached the same gospel to her children.

“Yesterday after I signed some form I had received, I forgot to wash my hands. My son, all this while watching me,  parroted at me the ‘wash-wash’ tune, reminding me to do the necessary,” she beams.

Kenya’s Health cabinet secretary Mutahi Kagwe yesterday announced three more coronavirus cases, taking the total count to seven.

Kenya reported its first case on March 13 involving a 27-year old woman who travelled to Kenya from the US, via London. She’s still receiving healthcare.

More than a dozen contact cases have been quarantined for tests, amid fears that the number of confirmed cases could blow up.

Read also: Coronavirus: Litmus Test For Kenya’s Industrial Base

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