Pandemic effect on peace building, food security and humanitarian assistance

In Summary

• Social distancing also decreases levels of friendship and family bonds

Nurse at Mbagathi County Hospital in protective gear for handling coronavirus patients.
Nurse at Mbagathi County Hospital in protective gear for handling coronavirus patients.
Image: MARGARET WANJIRU

Much as the COVID-19 pandemic is primarily a health crisis, the consequences of measures announced by governments to contain it have major ramification for almost every sector. The following are some of the areas that are being affected by the pandemic:

Social Cohesion

One of the preventive measures recommended governments is social distance. Social distancing is a big challenge to families living in squalid housing condition in congested urban ghettos and/or informal settlement. The informal settlement are the backbone of the city and town economy, constructing houses, washing clothes, cooking food, cleaning houses, serving in hotels and eateries, delivering takeaways, working in salons and barber shops, repairing automobiles, plumbing toilets and delivering newspapers, among other things.

Social distancing also decreases levels of friendship and family bonds thus negatively effecting Kenya culture such as vigorous handshake associated with people of western Kenya.

Due to the prolonged home stays by people who would otherwise be away from home, there is the risk of increased family feuds such as gender-based violence including sexual violence, divorce and separation among couples, high levels of stress and emotional instability, among others, especially in poor household.

Another challenge being posed by the COVID-19 pandemic is stigma and stereotyping against infected and affected people as well as social animosity based on class stratification

The pandemic has resulted in distrust of “city dwellers” by rural folks who perceive ‘‘city people’’ especially Nairobians to be virus carriers. The pandemic has also resulted in increase in racial fears especially against Chinese. Race is dominant frame in which people evaluate concerns over the ongoing coronavirus infection. Sinophobia and xenophobia is on the rise.

Politicizing the pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic has also been politicized as true with other crises. In Kenya, a section of politicians has blamed the virus on the March 2019 handshake between President Uhuru Kenyatta and opposition leader Raila Odinga and the subsequent Building the Bridges Initiative (BBI) initiate. Elsewhere, Covid-19 has seen mushrooming of conspiracy theories made sharing easy by the expansion of social media platforms. One such conspiracy is coronavirus is a biological weapon developed in laboratories by the Chinese with the objective of making money. The President of United States of America, Donald Trump has called it “Chinese Virus” giving credence to the allegation. The truth of the matters is that there is no concrete evidence that coronavirus is bioweapon manufactured in the lab. It is a new virus for which there is no cure nor vaccine; and scientists are doing their best to find a solution. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has negatively affected the ongoing and planned peace processes. It is becoming increasingly difficult to facilitate intra and interethnic dialogues, more so in logistically hard to reach areas that are not connected to internet and even telecommunication network. Mediators cannot travel to conflict affected areas to conduct dialogue with parties in dispute. As result there are increased cases of intra and inter-ethnic conflicts in traditional conflict prone counties of West Pokot, Elgeyo Marakwet, Baringo, Turkana and Narok counties.

Peace building institutions therefore should come up with innovative and creative thinking and approaches of addressing novel coronavirus and violent conflict. The combined death toll by the virus and violent conflict will be a double tragedy for already marginalized, detached and deprived population.

The Harambee Spirit

However, the pandemic can also provide for an opportunity to unite Kenyans across ethnic, class, religion, gender and political groupings, since all are being faced by a common enemy. This is the time to show compassion and true Kenyan spirit of unity in diversity underpinned by the Harambee spirit. There is need to rally the warring communities to immediately hold ceasefire and come together to confront the challenges posed by Covid-19.

Social cohesion and peace champions have unique opportunities and capacities to bridge and build trust between the state and local communities as well as between and within communities. Peace committees, interfaith, youth and women leaders can play an important role in building trust for interventions in borderland and conflict affected communities whose past experiences had diminished their trust in government.

There is need to train grassroots leaders on novel coronavirus so that they create awareness at the community level to stop the spread of virus and counter misinformation and disinformation that is rife online and offline.

Aid communities and civil society organizations working in humanitarian field should provide their experience and expertise to deliver the much need humanitarian support to needy Kenyans. For aid to reach its intended beneficiaries in time and without pilferage, there is a need to minimize the bureaucratic state procedures that impede such processes.

Food security

While Corona pandemic has been in the headline, in the background, Kenya and the East and Horn of Africa region is also wrestling with desert locust invasion which could threaten food security. Locusts consume huge amounts of vegetation, exacerbating food insecurity across the counties, many of which have suffered total crop losses. Experts fear that new swarms expected to hatch by mid-April could be twenty times larger. Millions are already at risk of hunger and malnutrition and the outbreak of Covid-19 will compound their problems according to Food and Agricultural Organization Report (FAO).

Vulnerable groups such as unemployed youth, the elderly, women and children from low-income households are also at a higher risk of food scarcity and malnutrition. In some arid and semi-arid areas, about 4 million Kenyans are facing acute food insecurity and depend on relief food. The COVID-19 pandemic will only make the situation worse.

The government has not effectively cushioned them from hunger. Moreover, there aren’t significant proactive measures by the national government to coordinate assistance to the poor by individuals and institutions who are willing to donate to the vulnerable members of the society.

Humanitarian & relief

The COVID-19 pandemic has abruptly changed the way we live. It is a global calamity of monumental magnitude for which the world was not prepared for. It has devastated national economy and rendered many jobless overnight. The vulnerable members of the society, inhabitants of conflict zones and refugees are badly affected and cannot survive without support from government and humanitarian organizations. The Kenya government has announced restrictions on travel to and from Nairobi, Kilifi, Kwale and Mombasa counties which have been declared Covid-19 hotspots. The State should ensure that the imposed inter-county travel restrictions to contain the coronavirus should not affect transportation of humanitarian supplies and general supply chain.

Protection

The Kenyan government has adopted top-down approach in containing Covid-19 pandemic. It imposed dawn to dusk curfew. The police have been reported to have flagrantly violated human rights of citizens in their bid to enforce the curfew. There is need for the government to embrace a whole-society approach in fighting the virus. There will be consequences for states that use violence to contain the virus. The state should not use the virus to restrict civil liberties, undermine human rights protections or threaten political opposition groups.

The occurrence of Covid-19 in counties that are already experiencing intra and interethnic conflict is a double tragedy. Displaced from their homes for fear of attack, the resident will not be in a position to observe health measures and guidelines issued by the state and WHO including but not limited stay home, social distancing, washing of hands. Lockdown had turned their live upside down making them beggars in an instant. There is high chance that majority of these population will revert to crimes to survive unless the government come up with measures to at least provide them the basic necessities such as food and water. There is need to waiver electricity and rent by the government and landlords respectively for the entire period of pandemic.

Psychosocial and trauma

Following the pandemic there has been increase in anxiety, stress, panic attacks and mental illness. These should be major healthcare concerns during and after Covid-19 era. Ministry of health in conjunction with private and public institutions in psychiatry fields should set up toll free counselling help lines and other support system to help the victims and families of novel coronavirus. Trauma will be felt now and even post Covid-19.

Liban is Peacebuilding and Conflict Transformation Practitioner based in Nairobi, Kenya