On Friday last week, when Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe announced the first confirmed case of Covid-19, Kenyans wasted no time as they rushed to stock up on groceries and other necessities.
They were drawing from experience elsewhere in the world where panic shoppers had stripped supermarket shelves clean in just hours in preparation for possible isolation.
Two days later, on Sunday, the President directed government departments and private companies to allow their employees to work from home, and asked citizens to restrict their movements. This resulted in more panic buying.
All the while, Dan Wesonga, a security guard attached to a supermarket on Kiambu Road in Nairobi, watched shoppers with dismay.
“On that first day, many shelves, especially those with toilet paper, hand sanitisers and foodstuffs, were left empty,” he recalls, as he proceeds to describe how exceptionally long queues at the supermarket snaked around the store’s aisles. “That is when the enormity of the crisis really started to register.”
He admits that for the past one week, he has been more worried than assured by the statements from the President and the health minister.
“As I watched customers push their full carts around, some even two, I wondered if I was going to manage to take care of the needs of my family back at home … just in case infection rates spike dramatically in Kenya too,” he says.
Mr Wesonga lives in Githogoro. His wife, a casual labourer who moves around people’s houses cleaning or cooking for a day, is nursing their youngest of three children. She hasn’t worked for almost three months, leaving him the sole breadwinner.
On his Sh12,000 salary, he says, he cannot imitate the customers at the supermarket he guards in stocking up.
And so, as announcements are made of increasing cases, families like that of Mr Wesonga have little to do but worry.
The 2019 Economic Survey shows that five in six wage-earning employees work in the informal sector. In this sector, statistics show, Kenya’s monthly minimum wage for workers categorised as artisans is Sh17,447 and for general labour is Sh12,926.
The average wage for the public sector is Sh57,915 while that of the private sector is Sh59,184.
The scenes Mr Wesonga is witnessing at the supermarket bring out the uncomfortable reality of economic inequalities that exist in the country, which could be exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. Yet Mr Wesonga, with all his worries, is way better off than many Kenyans.
Many poor Kenyans have little financial capacity to cushion themselves from the negative economic impact of the pandemic.
In 2018, the Kenya Integrated Household Budget Survey reported that 16.4 million people live below the poverty line of Sh5,995 per adult per month. All these people cannot afford to meet their basic food requirements and other expenditure.
The overall proportion of poor individuals, statistics show, widely ranges from a low of 16.7 per cent in Nairobi to a high of 79.4 per cent in Turkana County.
From that survey, the total population of food-poor Kenyans was found to be 14.5 million — 24.4 per cent of whom live in urban areas while 28.9 per cent are peri-urban dwellers. At least 16.1 per cent were Nairobi residents.
As the government and corporates move to enforce the work-from-home directive, and fear continues to spread around the virus, the question of what percentage of the workforce would manage to get by persists.
Esther Mukami, a mobile coffee vendor in Nairobi’s city centre who mainly caters to the matatu industry, says her financial position cannot allow her to stop working.
“First, because my clients are still on the road and also because if I stop working, who will provide for my two children? What shall we eat if I just stay at home?” she poses.
Institute of Economic Affairs Chief Executive Officer Kwame Owino says: “The directive is going to cause constraints for many people both in the informal and formal sectors.
While the public health objective to stop people moving around is noble, when you knock it against the reality that a majority of people have to actually move about to make a living, it might not be applicable in a majority of the cases.
“Most of the workforce, particularly in cities, are traders and personal service providers who depend on people being able to move to earn. For instance, in Nairobi, for the 2.8 million people who are traders to stay away from work, it will be a bit difficult”.
He adds that in urban areas, it’s possible for those who work in the formal sector and performing desk jobs to continue working. But the most recent census figures show that only 28 per cent said they have a laptop.
On Mr Wesonga’s mind is another set of vexing issues, like the requirement for stringent handwashing with soap and water for those who cannot afford sanitisers.
“Where I live, the people certainly cannot afford masks and hand sanitisers, so that is out of question. They have advised those of us who cannot afford sanitiser to wash our hands often. But we buy our water from vendors. That extra money to buy more water so that my children and wife can wash their hands as consistently as the CS has said is my other headache,” he says before concluding, “but we shall find a way.”
A 20-litre jerrycan of water in most water-scarce Nairobi estates goes for between Sh20 and Sh50, depending on the season. As with shopping for food and other necessities in supermarkets, inequality also persists even when it comes to access to water for sanitation among the have and have-nots.
A survey on household drinking water, sanitation and hygiene by the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) in 2017 found that only 25 per cent of Kenyans had access to a handwashing facility at home, that is, a place where they can wash with water and soap, a majority of whom were in urban areas (32 per cent). At least 35 per cent lacked soap with which to wash while 40 per cent had no handwashing facility at all.
The study took into account even the most rudimentary handwashing facilities, including improvised pitchers.
The survey also found that there are significant gaps between the rich and the poor in availability of basic handwashing facilities.
The inequalities spilt to the ability to wash hands as well, with only 27 per cent of the poor having basic access to clean water, which reduced to only 9 per cent for water that would be available for more than 30 minutes a day. On the other hand, there was 89 per cent availability for the rich.
“Those in the lower income brackets will definitely be most affected by what is happening and the near lockdown occasioned by the need to restrict movement. They are the most vulnerable in terms of financial capacity to do certain things like shop in huge quantities for eventualities,” said Dr James Kairuki, a sociology lecturer at the University of Nairobi.
“In terms of lack of access to clean water at a time when the global call is for people to be more vigilant in terms of hygiene, they are also vulnerable because of water scarcity in many parts of the city.”
He adds: “From what we’ve already witnessed, many will carry on working because they need the money, otherwise they’ll starve.”