Nairobi’s fight against Corona

According to statistics of the WHO, 45 African countries have been affected by Covid-19. Kenya is one of them. There are 234 confirmed cases and 11 deaths. However, the estimated number of unknown cases is probably much higher. Although public life in some urban areas has generally come to a halt, there is no countrywide lockdown. That, indeed, would be a challenge especially for the poor as the majority of residents live in unplanned and poorly serviced informal areas and earn their daily living through running small-scale and informal businesses. Nairobi-based urban planner Constant Cap states that the coronavirus crisis could give African cities like Nairobi a good opportunity to re-think their urban planning and development by putting people’s needs in the centre of attention.

When news of the spread of the coronavirus (Covid-19) hit Nairobi in early February, online activists made their voices heard by demanding immediate government action. Yet passenger flights from China and other initially affected areas were going on as scheduled. Though there was no reported case in Africa at the time, there was fear of the introduction of the virus from countries already hit by the epidemic.

Initially, the noise seemed to fall on deaf ears until one daily newspaper published the headline ‘Enemies of the People.’ The daily listed senior government ministers who they believed were refraining from taking necessary action to prevent a possible outbreak of the disease. Within no time the Head of State issued an executive order and set up a task force to prepare and handle a possible outbreak of the virus: The National Emergency Response Committee on Coronavirus. The task force consists of senior government officials and experts. Its main functions include coordinating the country’s preparedness to the threat of the coronavirus, enhancing surveillance at points of entry, and coordinating testing kits and medical supplies.

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The task force took to its work and called off all international meetings convening more than 15 people. This led to the cancellation and postponement of several conferences, workshops and other planned engagements. A week and a half later, on the 13th of March, the first local case was officially confirmed. The announcement led to massive changes in public life including the cancellation of all public meetings, school events and prison visits. Guidelines for religious gatherings and use of public transport required citizens to engage in regular cleaning and use of hand sanitizers. The advice to those affected by a cough was to stay at home.

The initial response was slow, but two days later, with a second case officially reported, all schools and universities were closed immediately. The Government also restricted travel into Kenya from countries with corona cases. Officials soon emphasized that only Kenyan citizens would still be allowed into the country, but would have to undergo self-quarantine for 14 days. Employers were encouraged to allow their employees to work from home. The authorities discouraged public gatherings like weddings and funerals as well as visits to hospitals and shopping places for a period of 30 days.

The financial sector responded by waiving fees for mobile money transactions up to KES 1000 (10 USD). Mobile money is the main means of payment in Nairobi after cash payments. The waiver aims at discouraging the use of cash, which may be an easy form of spreading the virus.

For the last few weeks, there has been constant communication from the Ministry of Health. Updates have covered the number of cases and guidelines on public life and public transport. Public transport in Kenya generally consists of privately owned and managed vehicles. These mostly use 14, 23 and 33-seater vehicles. Ministerial directives indicate that 14-seater public vehicles should carry a maximum of eight passengers, 25-seaters are to carry no more than 15 passengers while 30-seater buses and above should maintain a 60 percent maximum capacity. People are discouraged from sitting next to each other and the transport companies are to provide hand sanitizers. The vehicles have continued to operate but with increased fares, thus pushing the burden to the passengers. At points of departure, some public transport vehicles were asking clients to wash their hands before boarding but for most of those who board along the route, there is little or no effort made to maintain the expected sanitation standards. A leading media group used online crowdsourcing to assess the situation in public transport and the revelations were not too surprising for many – not much effort was expended on the new hygiene rules. Scenes of overloading, non- compliance with hygienic standards and dirty vehicles could be observed in many places. Inter-city and inter-county travel continued. By contrast, in Shenzhen, China, inter-city travel was one of the first things that the local bus company stopped as it foresaw this to be an easy way to spread the virus. On Monday, 6th of April, the Head of State announced that there would be immediate cessation of movement in and out of the Nairobi Metropolitan Area. The same restrictions were applied to Mombasa and Kilifi counties, which lie along the Kenyan Coast.

In the majority of in urban areas, public life has generally come to a halt. The constant traffic congestion the city of Nairobi is known for has all but disappeared. The streets in the central business district no longer have their usual foot traffic and many shops have very little or no footfall. Public spaces like parks and urban forests have hardly had any visitors. Since bars and night clubs initially continued to attract patrons, the government ordered their immediate closure on the 22nd of March.

There have been several calls for a countrywide lockdown as is happening in many parts of the world. Unfortunately, the socio-economic characteristics of African cities pose difficult challenges to the implementation of such a drastic measure. The majority of residents live in unplanned and poorly serviced informal areas. A large percentage earn their daily living through running small-scale and informal businesses, living off daily earnings or wages. The lack of basic services within the poorer neighbourhoods is likely to lead to a rapid and largely unhindered spread of the virus. At the same time, for those who work in the informal sector of the economy, being out of or away from work for a single day may mean sleeping hungry alongside several of their dependants. If large parts of the population find themselves thrown into both a health crisis and unemployment, this could easily lead to major riots, even social anarchy. Public authorities are therefore faced with a difficult position. The country does not have a social security system in place to support the poorer urban communities. Street vendors, informal markets, small-scale artisans have no choice but to continue with their daily routines. In response, the city authorities have attempted to fumigate all major markets knowing that most of them will not disrupt their operation. There is, however, fear that if this segment of the society gets struck by the virus, the escalation levels could be worse experiences than other parts of the world.

So far Kenya has 142 confirmed cases of Covid-19 and 4 deaths. The World Health Organization has encouraged the stepping up of testing and home isolation of positive cases. Countries like South Korea and Singapore have indeed pursued a route of extensive testing and the tracking of potential carriers of the virus. In Kenya, the response to the WHO’s urgent advice has seemed to be very slow. The government’s expectation of people to go into self-quarantine does not seem to have worked and reports indicate that there is a still slow but steadily accelerating spread of the virus. An example was the report of a public official who travelled from Europe but refused to go into quarantine and later attended several public functions. He has since been forced into isolation and is now facing criminal charges for his reckless behaviour. The government also set up new regulations requiring household heads and landlords to report anyone showing Covid-19 symptoms. Additionally, the cabinet secretary (minister) can push for a lockdown in infected areas and designate private facilities for isolation and treatment should the need arise.

The coronavirus has given African cities like Nairobi a good opportunity to re-think how they approach their urban planning and development. It is precisely the reliance on neo-liberal approaches involving the privatization of key services like housing, health, public transport and urban planning that is now contributing to potentially catastrophic consequences of the pandemic on the African continent. Neo-liberal market-driven approaches of urban development have increased social disparities and now leave the urban poor largely without protection against the medical and economic threats that are looming. It is however a principle of good governance and therefore important to be able to provide basic and affordable services to all instead of the privileged few. As we see more nations struggling to handle the situation, even among the developed countries, the dramatic devastation caused through the lack of robust health services and efficient public-sector institutions must be understood as a wake-up call for African nations to build economically more resilient communities through urban planning policies that focus on greater social justice and emphasize the needs of all parts of the population.