Like a scene straight from the insanely popular TV series Money Heist, an unknown number of people were recorded escaping from quarantine at the Kenya Medical Training College (KMTC) headquartered along Ngong Rd. Nairobi on Tuesday 21st April in unclear circumstances. In broad daylight.
Climbing over the wall, unperturbed and seemingly gutsy, the assailants had the audacity to carry their bags, and jumped over the wall, blending in with other Nairobians as they starred in their blockbuster ‘Escape From Sobibor’ set. The authorities are still in pursue with President Kenyatta vowing to force them back into isolation when captured.
When the coronavirus landed in Kenya a little over three weeks ago, specifically on March 12th, it found a country with, uhm, more serious underlying issues. Chronic corruption, cancerous thievery and an oblivious public – all diseases which had undergone untreated for years. We have learned to live with the symptoms. Until now.
Questions are being asked on our country’s preparedness to handle an outbreak of extreme levels.
This pressure is fueled by our competitive and image-conscious culture and has been further exacerbated by social media. The coronavirus has just forced us to take off our rose-coloured glasses.
It exposed the gap between the haves and the have-nots, which yawns like a chasm. But no sector has suffered, or will continue to suffer more than the informal sector.
Kenya’s informal sector, typically viewed through the prism of a stopgap measure where people eke out a living, feeding off the crumbs of the high and mighty, while they wait for jobs in the formal sector. But this is not a unique situation to Kenya.
Africa’s economies are dominated by their informal sectors which account for between 30% and 90% of all non-agricultural jobs.
For instance, on any given day, crowded markets like Gikomba, Kariakoor and Wakulima – the biggest informal markets in Nairobi, are packed to the brim with traders, consumers, suppliers and regulators all jostling for the elusive shilling.
Take a walk through Mathare, Kawangware or Kibera and at first glance you would be forgiven if you thought the world is in the midst of a coronavirus pandemic, which has curtailed movement with countries enforcing rigorous measures. As of April 23rd, a third of the global population is under lockdown.
Yet, at closer inspection, it is mildly obvious that things have slowed down. Here in the slums, people live from hand to mouth. Houses are side by side, families of more than three living in a one-roomed house, with little access to running water. When you ask them to observe certain rules – for their own safety – they will reply to you with the classic:
“How can we social distance when we share a wall?”
There has been a marked shift from anxiety to resignation and even hopelessness. Sustained sacrifice without a clear endpoint can feel like defeat.
Children are busy playing between their shacks, adults eking a living whilst socializing with their friends, and several shops remain open for business. Police presence is curtailed on the periphery of the estate – they know they cannot venture too deep.
Contrast the same situations with plush suburbs such as Karen and Kilimani, lording over its poorer neighbours. Their streets are silent, abandoned – almost haunted, their occupants invisible but not invincible – locked in lush compounds, their houses stocked with food and necessities incase the lockdown bites even further. Even in the midst of a pandemic, there are more equal animals than others. The status quo remains unchanged.
Just across the road is Kibera, a shantytown and Africa’s largest slum, home to over a quarter-million people, teeming in tin roofs, their hands tied by the spiralling inequality and poignant caste system. In these two streets, Kibera and Karen there are no grey areas. It’s either black or white.
According to Oxfam, Kenya is one of the world’s most unequal societies. Less than 0.1 per cent of the country’s 53 million people own more wealth than the other 99.9 per cent.
There is no running water in the majority of the slums and occupants have to make use of a communal toilet.
Antibacterial sanitizers rhyme with luxury and most locals have resorted to making their own ingenious mass – but self-quarantine against the virus simply isn’t a choice.
Majority of the citizens here depend on the informal sector for food, clothing, shelter and schooling. The Juakali industry is high-speed, fast-moving, effort-inducing and small-scale, lived day-to-day, with workers barely making the minimum wage to keep their families afloat. Forced to stay at home or go out, there really is no choice.
And to make it worse, the authorities are not even on their side. Social media posts have shown footage of officers striking people with batons.
At least seven Kenyans, civil societies claim the number is as high as 14 – have been killed by authorities as a result of the stringent curfew measures put in place by President Uhuru Kenyatta.
After a public outcry, the president issued an apology ‘…for excesses that were carried out.’
But empty-calorie bits of sympathy are ‘‘not enough’’ compared with concrete action.
In Kawangware, where I live, it is difficult, nay impossible to keep from bumping into people – a halo reminder of how easily the virus can spread here. Already there are three confirmed cases of coronavirus in Kawangware.
Ungwaro, as it is popularly known, is still lively. The people are hopeful, scared, its alleys still bustling not for lack of knowledge of COVID-19, but for lack of options as to how to defend against it.
Forced to choose between staying indoors to quarantine and the alternative? Do they really have a choice? The alternative is even deadlier – seeing your family go to bed hungry – they just have to put food on the table. At whatever cost.
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