COVID-19 in the Slums: Lessons from Nigeria and Kenya

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A virtual conference organized by Spaces for Change and the Kenya-based Do-It-with-Boldness Foundation on August 11 united leaders and representatives of informal communities in Nigeria and Kenya to discuss the impact of the COVID-19 emergency response measures on under-served urban communities in the two countries. Whether it is the downtown locales in Badia and Otto Ilogbo in Lagos or the Mathare and Kibera communities in Kenya, the lockdown measures imposed by the Nigerian and Kenyan governments in response to the outbreak of coronavirus pandemic triggered a wave of unintended adverse consequences on the local economy, traditional livelihoods, food security, maternal wellbeing, security and the informal sector, with serious implications on the social, economic and cultural rights of citizens, especially the most vulnerable populations living in the informal urban settlements.

 

The conference featured presentations and sharing of experiences by the six panelists from the two countries comprising Asha Jaffar (journalist and communications professional from Kenya Nairobi), Winnie Ayieko Rasugu  (Founder and CEO of Do It with Boldness Foundation, Kenya), Ishola Agbodemu (Community Development Association of Lagos Mainland), Mrs. Olabisi Williams (women leader of the Community Alliance against Displacement (CAD)), Joseph Were (human rights defender and Programmes Assistant at Imarika Youth, Kenya) and Moses Anjola Ilawole (youth leader and Community Officer for CAD, Nigeria).

Asha Jaffar from Kenya talked about the local perceptions of COVID-19 with initial suspicions of the disease being a hoax. This perception resulted in a marked decrease in compliance with the safety precautions and regulations at the community level. As with Kenya, Moses Anjola confirmed that similar perceptions held sway in the Lagos slums where locals attributed the disease to affluence and wealth. COVID-19 infects only the rich and mighty was a popular refrain within the Lagos’ informal communities. The death of prominent personalities during the initial wave of the pandemic fueled these perceptions.

 

The lockdown measures involved the total cessation of all non-essential movement, ban on public gatherings, frequent handwashing, social distancing, school closures and compulsory stay-at-home (SAH) for all residents, which have been recommended by health experts as critical preventive measures for combating the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. Urban slums are characteristically overcrowded and poorly-ventilated, making for easy transmission of communicable diseases in these settlements. The overcrowding and absence of social amenities—such as potable water, toilets and sanitary facilities—mean that simple preventive measures like social distancing and handwashing are regarded as luxury. The surge of sexual and domestic violence cases, massive job losses, food shortages and forced evictions recorded during the lockdown provoked outcry and calls on state authorities to uphold citizens’ right to live somewhere in security, peace and dignity.

 

In Nigeria, both individuals and businesses faced daunting challenges due to the snowballing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.  According to the maiden report of the COVID-19 Impact Monitoring Survey recently released by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), COVID-19 pandemic has widespread impact on employment and income. The inhabitants of informal settlements bore the brunt of these harsh impacts on the economy, with many resorting to begging for food daily to stay alive. In Mathare, a Kenyan slum, residents were charged 15ksh to take a shower and 5ksh for toilet use while Baringo teens traded sex for money to buy sanitary pads because parents could not afford it.

 

Speaking on the specific impacts on gender, Winne Ayieko Rasugu’s presentation shed light on the surging incidents of sexual and domestic violence in Kenyan slums during the lockdown. Due to the movement restrictions, over 5000 rape cases were reported between March and June 2020, with majority of the affected victims being teenage girls. The government responded to the rape cases by providing a 24/7 emergency center for swift response and treatment of the victims of abuse, increased vigilance against as well as arrest and prosecution of perpetrators, and the spread of information to prevent further incidences.  Nigeria also witnessed an exponential rise in sexual and domestic violence barely a month into the pandemic. The rape epidemic reached ridiculously-rife proportions due to inaction, stigmatization, limitations of existing laws, and the state’s failure to respond to it as a major humanitarian crisis. This brought to the fore, an urgent need for a more cohesive approach between organizations representing informal communities to increase awareness and develop strategies to curb domestic and sexual violence against women and girls.

 

Joseph Were spoke on the Kenyan government’s response to the social and economic deprivations faced by slum dwellers during the pandemic. In combating the spread of the virus, proper hygiene is necessary. Particularly laudable was the government’s provision of clean water across the country, especially in the informal settlements. The new Nairobi Metropolitan Service came up with the stellar initiative of drilling boreholes in every slum settlement to ensure there is enough water supply for inhabitants. Not only that, the Minister of Health rolled out awareness-creation initiatives to educate the citizens on preventive measures. Community members also acted more responsibly by observing strict safety protocols and instilled curfews to tackle the community’s insecurity challenges.

 

Responding to the outbreak in Nigeria, the Federal Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development disbursed palliative measures, notably the disbursement of four months grants of N20,000 to the poorest households in various states. However, the disbursements were characterized by concerns surrounding the discriminatory selection criteria and the lack of accountability.

 

One issue that arose during the interactive session is the rising incidents of unlawful arrests and police intimidations recorded during the lockdown. In response to this, Joseph Were discussed some of the strategies the Kenyan civil society used to push back against police brutality and intimidation. Particularly significant was the creation of a community policing platform which allowed citizens to engage the police, instill discipline within the community and to facilitate a healthy relationship between the law enforcement agents and the community. The Chief and Assistant Chief at the local administration were instrumental in regulating this engagement with the police and fostering better communication. Kenya’s Law Society has been very instrumental and vocal in addressing police misconduct and providing guidelines to community members on the right to seek redress against unlawful police arrest and brutality.

 

The conference provided valuable insights into the challenges facing slum dwellers in Africa and posited beneficial and practicable solutions which were shared by the different panelists. Accountability of the leadership at every level is indispensable if social development is to be attained. This entails the different tiers of government working cohesively to implement initiatives that improve living conditions in the informal settlements. The disproportionate impacts of COVID-19 on vulnerable groups demonstrate that human rights, particularly social and economic rights must lie at the core of COVID-19 emergency responses.

 

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