Seated under the hot sun beside a pile of smoked fish and an assortment of vegetables, Charity Akinyi watched as a small crowd queued to wash their hands at a public tap set up by a non-governmental organisation at Kamukunji grounds in Kibera on Friday.
The queue was not long and mostly comprised children excited at the chance of rubbing their hands with a sanitiser, as they had watched on television. The tingling feeling on their arms must have excited the children as each immediately started blowing their hands immediately the sanitiser landed on their hands.
Basic hygiene and handwashing have been identified by the World Health Organization (WHO) as one of the most effective ways of preventing the spread of the coronavirus.
For Ms Akinyi, her immediate concern is if she can manage to sell enough fish or vegetables so that her children don’t go hungry.
“People are not buying. Things have been really difficult from the beginning of the week,” she says.
As the coronavirus continues to ravage the country, small-scale traders like Ms Akinyi have already started witnessing a decline in sales. But in slums like Kibera where she lives, the residents just want to survive.
“Have you seen the virus or those are just stories from the government?” she asks.
“People here don’t believe there is anything like coronavirus. If it was there, as we are being told, we would have seen some sort of government intervention like provision of water and soap,” she says.
With a widespread feeling of abandonment, the residents of informal settlements who the WHO says carry the biggest risk of bearing the brunt of the global pandemic, have a very indifferent view of Covid-19.
While a good number of them acknowledge that Kenya is staring at a social and economic crisis, many have seemingly left their lives to fate.
“People here say the government just wants to make money. We have seen so many scandals that no one trusts what the government says any more,” says Kilalo Masumba, who has bought himself a face mask.
In the absence of running water, a number of organisations have installed hand-washing facilities across Kibera. The facilities are makeshift and way too scattered to make a big difference leaving a huge percentage of slum residents exposed.
According to Unicef, three out of every five people across the world do not have access to basic handwashing facilities. This critical population without handwashing facilities in Kenya as in other African countries is largely based in the informal settlements and in the rural areas.
The World Bank estimates that 56 per cent of urban dwellers in Kenya live in slums and informal settlements while 72 per cent of Kenyans in rural areas. In Nairobi alone, at least 72 per cent of residents live in slums, where access to basic facilities and critical infrastructure is wanting.
When you add this population to the number of people living in densely populated neighbourhoods like Pipeline, Kasarani, Kariobangi, Dandora, Githurai, Kawangware and the whole of Eastlands, then the percentage of city dwellers living in tightly packed areas is way higher.
In such areas, the supply of water is restricted to mostly once a week, dwelling units are close to each other, sewage flows freely on the roads and most of the residents share utilities like washing areas, bathrooms and toilets.
In slums, most landlords do not provide toilet facilities and the few that are available are used at a fee of about Sh5. Bathrooms too are public.
Even if the government is to effect a shutdown, it would be impossible to make the people living in informal settlements and low-income neighbourhoods to stay in their houses.
Most of them do not have disposable income and thus cannot stock-pile food.
“There are two things I fear most, hunger and failing to pay rent. I cannot stay in the house,” says Zachariah Ombasa, a resident of Congo in Kawangware.
A single room in Kawangware goes for between Sh3,000 and Sh4,000 per month.
In Kibera, the figures are a bit lower, between Sh2,000 and Sh3,000 per room.
Any form of disruption of income streams, as has been witnessed, would leave low-income earners badly exposed.
By announcing a partial shutdown on Friday, the government appeared to have given Kenyans a chance to restrict themselves as the country moves into the most critical week of coronavirus infections, failing which a total lockdown can be announced.
“If there is any moment in the country where we have needed the Harambee spirit, it is now,” Health Cabinet secretary Mutahi Kagwe said on Friday.
A total lockdown would mean banning any form of non-essential travel and crowding; two factors that have been identified by the WHO as the biggest contributors to the spread of Covid-19.