MANAGING CORONAVIRUS

Government policy will determine how we make it through the next few weeks

Consider for example, the application of “social distancing” in the informal settlements.

In Summary
  • It is impossible to keep one metre apart in those narrow alleys to be found in most slums.
  • Likewise, it is impossible to effectively quarantine those who live five people per single room, with such rooms separated by very flimsy walls.

Over the past fortnight, we Kenyans have received a valuable lesson in what prudent government policy looks like. I refer here to the decision to let the Kenyans who found themselves in Wuhan, China, remain in place, even as the novel coronavirus health crisis exploded globally, and the fatality numbers rose exponentially.

The pressure on the government was for immediate repatriation of “our children” to their country, at all costs. And this pressure increased when some brave soul made a short video of dozens of foreigners (widely assumed to be Chinese citizens working here in Kenya) disembarking from an airplane.

But the Kenyan authorities held firm to their decision not to try and bring these young scholars home; instead sent them money for the essentials they would need while in quarantine; and waited for the massive effort underway in China to fight this plague, to achieve the intended results.

 
 

And now it seems that the crisis in Wuhan specifically, is considered to be largely over, with not a single Kenyan death resulting from the government’s policy of leaving “our children” in China.

No doubt the families of these young Kenyans suffered untold mental anguish over the past few weeks and felt that they had been abandoned by their government. But all the same, the government did the right thing.

Well, that is just one hurdle passed. There are many more that lie ahead. Consider for example, the application of “social distancing” in the informal settlements where a majority of residents in most of our cities live.

It is impossible to keep one metre apart in those narrow alleys to be found in most slums. Likewise, it is impossible to effectively quarantine those who live five people per single room, with such rooms separated by very flimsy walls.

A proposal for a middle-class lockdown (or partial lockdown) – based on what richer Asian or European nations have done – is relatively simple. But there is no existing template for extending such a lockdown into a large informal settlement like our Kibera or Mathare.

These are communities to whom “Wash your hands often” or “Use hand sanitiser” or – with all the flies buzzing around – “Don’t touch your face” can only sound like a bad joke. Added to this is the fact that many of the slum residents are people who earn a daily or weekly wage. Such workers have to choose between going out to seek the day’s income; and staying home with the certainty that their entire families will go to bed hungry.

In this context, “panic buying” – the idea that anyone can have enough money to buy a month’s supply or more, or essential goods – is an alien concept.

Experts in other countries that have large slum populations, such as Brazil and India, are agreed on three factors which make public health policy for such slums extremely difficult in the current crisis.

 

First is that with the absence of modern sanitation, and shortage of health facilities, slums are likely to serve as an accelerant for Covid-19, once the infection enters such slums.

Second is that while it may be the rich locals and foreigners who flew in from foreign lands who brought the coronavirus to a country, in most nations with a large pool of urban poor, these poorer citizens interact routinely with the middle class. Many who live in slums – or near slums – work as house servants, security guards, office messengers, construction site workers, street hawkers, etc.

Finally, there is a deep mistrust of government in many such slums, and the residents tend to come up with their own interpretations of what any government initiative “really means”. A classic example – seen many times here in Kenya – is the conviction that any government programme for “slum upgrading” is really just an attempt to dispossess the slum residents of their hovels. Hence there was, initially, a deep scepticism among poor Kenyans as to whether indeed there was any coronavirus pandemic.

So, a proposal for a middle-class lockdown (or partial lockdown) – based on what richer Asian or European nations have done – is relatively simple. But there is no existing template for extending such a lockdown into a large informal settlement like our Kibera or Mathare.

Our policymakers will have to come up with a homegrown solution. And this will not be easy.