‘We’re taking matters into our own hands’: bracing for impact in Kenya

Written by Kennedy Odede ’12 

When Covid-19 hits Africa, will we be ready? This was a distant thought just one month ago. Now, as cases climb, we are braced for impact.

As the crisis deepens in the world’s largest economies, taking up most of the media bandwidth, Africa hardly makes the headlines. In international news outlets, the idea of crisis in Africa is met with resignation, not outrage. It is almost as if the media perceives crisis as the status quo in Africa, something expected. Unavoidable.

Kenya’s cabinet secretary for health, Mutahi Kagwe, has cautioned: “We are praying and hoping for the best, but clearly we must also prepare for the worst. And mentally we must prepare ourselves to face an insurmountable situation.”

To date, only a handful of countries have successfully “flattened the curve”, controlling the outbreak so that it doesn’t overwhelm their healthcare system. We now know this is possible, and what it will take. So we must ask ourselves – what more can be done to strengthen prevention and readiness efforts where coronavirus has yet to take hold? We must do more as a global community to ensure the third wave is not the deadliest and most destructive.

If we don’t act now, communities such as mine are where Covid will cause the most destruction and even chaos. I grew up in Kibera, Africa’s biggest slum, on the outskirts of Kenya’s capital city. Like all cities, Nairobi is a fluid urban centre where people are interconnected through jobs, mass transit, daily life, but here approximately 60% of the population are living in an urban slum.

Kibera, like all slums, is a transitory place where people come and go between their families’ ancestral village and the promise of economic opportunity in urban centres. Raised in a 10-by-10 shanty room with seven siblings, we had no concept of personal space or time alone. Hygiene was poor, our toilet was shared by more than 50 households.

Today, despite all our efforts, thousands of Kibera’s families live in the same circumstances alongside poor sanitation. With up to 250,000 of the world’s poorest people living on 2.5 sq km of land, there is no way to practise “two-metre social distancing”. in Kibera and among the world’s one billion slum dwellers, our best bet is to try to prevent an outbreak; we know this is virtually impossible but it’s our only hope and we have to try. In a pandemic such as this, the fate of urban slums will impact the trajectory of the Covid-19 virus on a national scale.

The head of the World Health Organization (WHO,) Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, warned that Africa must wake up to the coronavirus. Vulnerable communities like mine are heeding this call, working around the clock, scraping together resources to do everything they can to keep the virus out. It is time for international leaders to step in with support that can reinforce community-led efforts. Even modest investments such as cash payments to slum dwellers and improving awareness, testing efforts and food support would go a long way towards containing and slowing the spread. As I write, there have only been 197 confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Kenya with eight deaths but where will we be in a month’s time, if the virus spreads the way it has in the developed world?

In Kibera and other slums across Kenya, communities are taking matters into their own hands because when a community comes together even in the most fearful times there is hope. Community leaders are mobilising through Shofco, an organisation I founded as a 15-year-old boy who believed in the potential for communities to change their destiny. Together we have set up handwashing stations at every entry point to the slum and are running door-to-door campaigns to raise awareness and distribute bleach, homemade soap and hand sanitiser while combating rumours and misinformation.

In partnership with the government, ministry of health and other locally based organisations, we are doing all we can to prevent the outbreak from decimating some of our most vulnerable communities. We know that if and when we face the full force of the virus, our fate is intertwined with one another, our city and our nation as a whole. This is a fact that we will never forget.

The fear in my community is palpable. Joan, a resident of Kibera, says: “When I hear of corona I see death has come to Kibera, it’s a disease that spreads quickly and hurts. Because of our living conditions, it will spread fast. Many of our people have underlying conditions like HIV, blood pressure, there are orphans without good nutrition and very poor families. They say corona kills those with poor immunity, so we will all be at risk of a quick, sudden death.”

We have seen the alarm bells sounding around the globe. It is my plea that the international community seizes this opportunity to strengthen a successful homegrown effort that can teach valuable lessons in preparedness, rather than waiting to mobilise only after massive devastation has taken place.

From Kibera, from communities like mine, i hope the world learns that we are capable of keeping ourselves safe, clean, safe and protected. Community-led efforts must be allowed to start and to lead the way.