The many faces under Covid-19 pandemic mask wearers

Friday, May 22nd, 2020 00:00 |
Mama Hella Ikato with her grandchildren at their house in Maweni slums in Voi. Photo/PD/ISAM LATOTI

Isam Latoti

In every generation, an article of clothing appears and turns into a fashion statement defining that era. 

In the 80s, fashion-conscious teenyboppers dazzled with high-waist bellbottoms and pointy shoes while and ladies rocked with knee-high frilly skirts and wooden clogs. 

Skinny sweat pants later made an appearance and scandalised the old folk who thought them indecent. For such were the hallmarks for fashion standards back then.

In the era of Covid-19 pandemic, facemasks is the vogue of our time. Be it inside the imposing grandeur of the state house or in the rundown hovels in far villages of Lunga Lunga, a mask has suddenly become an indispensable part of every Kenyan daily life.

When a concerned Ministry of Health in April issued a mandatory directive on wearing a mask in public, it was intended to halt risk of airborne transmission of coronavirus, not wearing a mask was criminalised with a fine of Sh20,000 or a jail term of six months.

Currently, masks come in all shapes, colours and sizes; from sophisticated chic-looking N95 to colourful kitenge masks to improvised rags attached to ear straps, the bottom line is simple: if it is big enough to cover mouth and nose, a mask it is.

However, under that mask lies a universe of complex socio-economic dynamics that exposes the multiple unintended consequences the Ministry of Health’s directive resulted to.

In a poverty-ridden Maweni slums in the outskirts of Voi town, a downcast Hella Iminza Ikato, 64, sits on a water barrel outside her mud hovel.

She is cradling her two-year old grandson on her lap. Hanging from a nearby clothes’ line are two cloth facemasks, still dripping from a recent wash.

To Ikato, the mask is the modern-day symbol of freedom. Like the infamous colonial movement permit, it gives her the ability to move from her house to town and back, freely without fear of arrest.

“I can’t dare leave without a mask. I must wait until it dries. Only then can I go searching for firewood to sell,” she said.

But it is also more than freedom symbol. It is an added economic burden she can ill-afford at a time when every coin that comes her way; either from well-wishers or by her own industry goes to feeding her family of six. 

Ikato, a veteran hawker in Voi bus-stage since 2003, has been selling fruits to passengers passing through the town. Her business took a major hit when Covid-19 struck disrupted public transport along Nairobi-Mombasa Highway.

She has been reduced to scavenging for any available job; from carrying bricks at construction sites to selling firewood to fishmongers.

Ikato represents thousands who even at the best of times lived from hand to mouth. To them, a mask, no matter how cheap, is an additional expense.

However, they must have it to avoid falling foul with local administrators and community vigilantes who harass those without.

“If you don’t have a mask, you are just but a prisoner in your own house. That is our current reality,” she said.

A neighbour, Mary Wakesho, a 28-year-old widow and a mother of three at Maweni slums, says she had been holed up in her tiny compound for days for fear of encountering members of community police.

She has no face mask. This means she cannot go out look for work resulting in certain starvation.

“We rely on well-wishers. There is scarcely enough money for food leave alone buying any mask,” she said.

Efforts by well-wishers to donate free masks have remained woefully inadequate with large numbers of slum poor still lacking the vital item.

While a mask is a financial burden to the slum poor, it is an instrument of extortion for security agencies.

Police have turned the enforcement of mask-wearing directive into a lucrative economic venture with anyone without a mask becoming a potential target for law enforcement.

Timothy Mbonje, a bodaboda rider in Bura Township, says after the curfew killed night business and city lockdown killed flow of buses and passenger’s vehicles along the busy highway, the mask is the new cash cow for rogue police officers.

“Everyone is now fair game. When caught without a mask, the only way out is to part with money,” he said.

Police also target traders manning shops, hotels and other business establishment.

On their part, the officers are magnanimous enough to allow for a quick bargain for a lesser bribe.

“They are aware coronavirus has affected everyone and allow you to haggle,” he adds. He argues most local people are wearing masks for fear of the police.

Deep in the remote villages, the masks have become sources of powers for community policing members with significant increase on their visibility at the grassroots.

In the past community police remained an amorphous non-armed quasi-security enforcement organ that existed in the fringes of government security operations.

This in until the government started to heavily rely on organ to combat spread of Covid-19. Community police members now report any visitors in their neighborhoods, spread Covid-19 awareness and enforce directives especially on wearing face masks. They are also used for contact tracing.

Peter Kwaze, community policing boss in Voi, says their value is now being felt and recognised. He adds that they ensure citizens are keeping safe by wearing masks wherever they are.

They also check on compliance with other precautionary measures including installation of hand-washing points for businesses.

“Community policing have a direct link with residents at the grassroots. We are helping in enforcing health directives. If you are not wearing a mask in public, we will arrest you,” he says.

In most operations, members of community policing are accompanied by chiefs or their assistants which further bolster the perception they are “government at the grassroots.”

Kwaze notes that even through the government recognised community policing as a vital organ in security enhancement, local officials took time to acknowledge their worth until Covid-19 outbreak.

Currently, they are new sheriffs in town with their powers extending to urban areas. 

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