Harder times for slum dwellers as Covid-19 virus cases rise

Friday, May 29th, 2020 00:00 |
Phanis Adhiambo, a tailor at Olympic area in Kibera, Nairobi, is among many residents whose businesses have been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. BELOW: Florence Atieno, another Kibera resident, says she closed down her eatery due to lack of customers. Photo/PD/LiliaN KAIVILU

Lilian Kaivilu @liliankaivilu

Kibera informal settlements yesterday recorded 35 positive cases of Covid-19. The congestion in the area, coupled with poverty among the slum dwellers, most of who depend on blue-collar jobs, is likely to worsen the situation. 

Phanis Adhiambo, a tailor at Olympic area, does not know what to be afraid of the most: that Covid-19 cases in the area are increasing by the day or that her children are sleeping hungry. The mother of five expresses fear of the unstable economic times.  

“At this time, my priority is my income and food for my children,” she says. 

She adds that the curfew and restriction of movement by the government further oppresses slum dwellers, many of who live on under a dollar a day.

Just like many other business people, Adhiambo’s business has been hit hard by the pandemic. She specialises in African wear, popular for ceremonies among Kenyans. 

“Most of my customers make their purchases for weddings, funerals and whenever they travelled upcountry. But now with all these events banned, I am out of business,” Adhiambo says.

While there is visible increase in face masks use by residents, high population in the area makes physical distancing quite a challenge.

 “We are six in my house. My children also have to get out and play with agemates. How do you expect them to keep distance? I live off the road thus, my children are exposed to different people,” she adds.

Adhiambo represents many slum dwellers grappling with challenge of space and physical distance while keeping off coronavirus. 

“It is not practical to keep distance in our areas of residence. The government should now open the economy and let citizens take personal responsibility of taking care of themselves,” she says.

Tracing history

Pascalia Nduku, who runs a rescue centre in Kibera for needy and orphaned children, says testing for Covid-19 would be most appropriate at the household level. This, she says, would ease the burden on facilities such as hers that receive children on random days.

“It is difficult to trace the history of such children. But we have to take them in,” says the founder of Inua Mimi Rescue Centre and school. Established in 2000, it is now home to 15 children from vulnerable homes. 

“I cannot chase them away, and we cannot test them for Covid-19 as we do not have the capacity to,” she says. 

In the past few weeks, Nduku has admitted three more children who walked in unaccompanied. She says such vulnerable ones are forgotten as the country fights to contain the pandemic.

Last Friday, Florence Atieno, 32, closed down her restaurant, rendering two of her staff members jobless.

“There were extremely low sales since the onset of Covid-19. There was also stigma on my staff as many locals believed people working in restaurants are more prone to the disease,” she says.

From serving 30 people every lunch time and 10 for breakfast, Atieno’s customers have dropped to 10 for lunch and none for breakfast. She had also been forced to reorganise and control the number of clients walking into the restaurant at any given time.

“Previously, I would host up to 12 clients at a time. But by the time we were closing down, I could only have four at a time to ensure the recommended distance,” she says. 

 Atieno is now working from home and relies on a few people who would call for office deliveries. She insists the government has a long way to go in dispelling myths around Covid-19, especially among people living in informal settlements. 

“There is a lot of propaganda and ignorance among many people here. It is time the government put more effort in communicating the seriousness of Covid-19, especially to slum dwellers,” she adds.

No worries of danger

To cushion the locals from effects of the disease, Garden of Hope Foundation, a non-profit organisation in Kibera, is distributing food, sanitary towels and paying rent for vulnerable members of the community.

Floridah Atieno, the foundation’s country director, says they have so far installed 14 hand washing stations in public places in Kibera and issued food baskets to 93 households since April. 

“The food basket contains two kilogrammes of sugar, rice, porridge flour, maize flour, beans, half bar of soap and a litre of cooking oil. In addition, we give at least two packets of sanitary towels to girls in each of those families,” says Atieno.  The organisation is also offering psycho-social support to 10 families with people living with disabilities. 

“Out of the 10 households, we have paid house rent for the month of May for four families,” she adds.

In Mathare, which on Wednesday reported 33 new infections and one yesterday, it is business as usual.

Here, the laid out protocols by the government such as social distancing remains a tall order and residents want to believe it is the government’s job to give them masks.

“They are telling us to put on face masks, but they are not supplying us with them. Most of us used to work in Industrial Area yet we were told to go home without pay,” says Evans Okeyo, we found seated outside his house a few metres from a popular matatu stage called Stage 10.

Okeyo, who has lived in Mathare for over 15 years now, says the government has done enough and that is why most people in the area have decided to move on with their business as usual without being worried about the danger. - Additional reporting by Alvin Mwangi

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