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  • Blossom Lee

How Africa's Largest Slum Found Hope During A Healthcare Crisis

Updated: May 11, 2021

In a National Geographic article, Brian Otieno, a 27-year-old photojournalist based in Nairobi, noted that “if you are struggling to get enough food to stay alive, you don’t have much time to worry about this thing called coronavirus. People have heard about it, but most of them can’t spare the time to fear it.”

If there is anything that has surfaced from the Covid-19 pandemic, it is the economic, racial, and health inequalities occurring both in the United States and internationally. Even with a vaccine on the horizon, Covid-19 has brought the world lockdowns, poverty, food insecurity, economic recessions, and unemployment.

For the 250,000 residents of Kibera, a slum in Nairobi, Kenya where residents earn less than $1 USD a day, Covid-19 is a rather diminished threat to these residents. Even during pre-pandemic times, residents had to ensure food and clean water for themselves and their families every day, as well as education for their children.

Residents who can’t find enough food won’t have the space and resources to avoid spreading the disease. In Kibera, five or more people often share one room. Social distancing is especially difficult when people live in these congested homes with poor sanitation and infrastructure. Even hand-washing puts a financial burden on residents. Edwine Barasa, director of the KEMRI-Wellcome Trust Research Program in Nairobi, commented, “Self-isolation presumes there is a spare room that someone can go to when they suspect they have COVID symptoms. It’s impossible to do that if you have many people living in one room.”

For those Kiberan families who were already living off of daily wages pre-pandemic, Covid-19 brought another level of financial insecurity: unemployment. Many Kiberans travel into Nairobi for work. However, as Joice, a junior at The Loomis Chaffee School in Windsor, Connecticut who is from Kibera said, most employers prohibited Kiberans to travel into the city as a way to curb the spread. Furthermore, markets closed, causing additional food insecurity and a lack of access to basic supplies. Schools also closed, leaving children who heavily depend on sponsored or subsidized meals hungry.

On March 12, after the first case in Kenya was identified, the government imposed a travel ban and curfew, which exacerbated pre-existing problems. Kibera, for example, suffers from violence and high crime rates. John Omondi, resident of Kibera, says that “hundreds of youth became fully immersed in a life of crime, mugging at gunpoint and selling drugs”. In the first five nights of the curfew, at least seven residents were killed by the police, including a 13-year-old. Kibera also suffers from high teenage pregnancy rates and drug abuse, which according to Joice, has increased recently due to teenagers not having anything to do.

Kibera’s rich culture and tightly knit community has unsurprisingly confronted Covid-19’s challenges with hope and love. The term “Harambe”, which represents the coming together of a community, was heavily embodied throughout the pandemic. Martha, a junior at Buffalo Seminary School in Buffalo, New York and originally from Kibera, noted that hand washing at stands has become a friendly competition between kids. Joice and Mollet, a junior at Brooks School in North Andover, Massachusetts also from Kibera, both agreed and added that basketball games and community service have been common activities to stay engaged as a community.

With Covid-19 halting travel, community-based organizations and NGOs around the world have responded to the pandemic in various ways. In the early stages of the pandemic, initiatives were started by Kibera community members including sharing socially-distant shower facilities, raising awareness and painting reminders through graffiti, and selling affordable face masks. However, since then, many NGOs have intervened and set up hygiene facilities around the slum. In addition, public sanitization has become more widespread with daily sanitation on public transportation and streets. When a case of Covid-19 is confirmed, the area is deeply sanitized. Shining Hope for Communities (SHOFCO), a community organization advocating for equal opportunities in Kibera, has set up hand washing stations, promoted awareness, and is operating a health clinic to conduct testing and contact tracing.

Despite these outside interventions to raise awareness, Martha commented that many Kibera residents have extremely strong mindsets to the point of overconfidence. She approximates that only 10% of residents wear masks, and most don’t believe that Covid-19 causes deaths. “We really believe in our health to the point where we are blinded by it,” she said.

Currently, rich countries are buying up most of the Covid-19 vaccinations. As of March 17, 2021, over 20% and 37% of the population in the US and UK respectively have received at least one dose. While current estimates show that the majority of the US will be fully vaccinated by the end of 2021, John Nkengasong, the director of Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, believes that widespread vaccination distribution in Africa will only become available around mid-2021. Another Bloomberg article estimates that it will take up to seven years for the entire world to be vaccinated.

If developed countries were to distribute their vaccines to these African countries with less resources, these statistics would look much more promising to prevent even more unnecessary deaths. But that does not mean that these developed countries are unwilling to distribute. A survey from STAT and The Harris Poll estimates that “three-quarters of Americans believe the US government should start donating Covid-19 vaccines to other countries, but only after every person in the US who wants a vaccine has received one.

Despite launching a successful Covid-19 vaccination campaign in early March of 2021, with 1.02 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine delivered, with Kenya’s extreme inequality, where less than 0.1% of the population own more wealth than the bottom 99.9%, vaccinations will most likely not be prioritized for Kibera residents. Most families are unable to access or afford medication or vaccinations to fight diseases such as HIV and cholera consistently, let alone the new Covid-19 virus.

While the developed world is slowly recovering from this world-altering event, communities such as Kibera are unable to return to normal life. Despite the lack of accessibility to basic human needs including food and healthcare, Kiberans still tackle day-to-day life with hope and love. This doesn’t mean, however, that the community does not need the world’s support. In fact, the world should learn to find joy out of the little things in life like the Kibera community has.

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