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A lady in a mask holds her young baby and looks defiantly at the cameraA lady in a mask holds her young baby and looks defiantly at the cameraA lady in a mask holds her young baby and looks defiantly at the camera

“The virus has changed the way we interact”: The reality of Covid-19 in Kenya

“The virus has changed the way we interact”: The reality of Covid-19 in Kenya
Story6 July 2021Hannah Myerson

Since Kenya’s first case of Covid-19 was reported on 13 March 2020, the pandemic has impacted the lives of millions across the country. In this miniseries, Concern colleagues and programme participants in Kenya share how their lives have changed, for better and for worse.

Juliana used to work in the City Cabanas hotel on the outskirts of Nairobi, but after Kenya’s first case of Covid-19 was announced last March, the hotel closed for three months. When it reopened, only two of the 15 staff members were offered jobs again. Juliana wasn’t one of them.

“If it was not for Covid, we would have been ok. My husband and I both lost our jobs and, as we speak, my family has been given an eviction notice as paying rent has become a problem. Before the pandemic, we were never on bad terms with the landlord.”

Over the past decade, political and economic reforms have contributed to significant economic growth and political stability in Kenya. Despite this, World Bank figures show 36% of Kenyans were living in poverty before coronavirus hit – and now this figure is likely to be much higher.

Juliana does her dishes
“If it was not for Covid, we would have been ok. My husband and I both lost our jobs and we have been given an eviction notice as paying rent has become a problem." - Juliana. Photo: Jared Onsongo / Concern Worldwide

Covid-19: Exacerbating existing challenges

In April, Kenya had the highest rate of Covid-19 infections in East Africa and registered a record 571 deaths. The effects of the pandemic have been felt profoundly by the country’s most vulnerable communities, exacerbating existing challenges that Concern has been tackling for two decades.

Inequality, economic vulnerability and the devastating effects of climate change have all impacted poor people’s opportunities to earn a living, and subsequently their access to food, education and health services. In recent years, rural areas have been blighted by frequent droughts, heavy flooding and locust swarms, which have contributed to severe crop and livestock losses.

With almost no time to recover from one emergency to the next, many families like Juliana’s migrated to urban centres like Nairobi. Now, Juliana is looking to move back to her rural home: “We don’t have to pay rent and there are less challenges than we are experiencing right now.”

A farmer's son raises his arms as he is surrounded by desert locusts while trying to chase them away from his crops, in Katitika village, Kitui county, Kenya. Credit: Ben Curtis/AP/Shutterstock
A farmer's son raises his arms trying to chase away desert locusts from his crops, in Kitui county, Kenya. Photo: Ben Curtis/AP/Shutterstock

The ripple effect

The Kenyan government has taken a number of measures to curb the spread of the virus, including limiting movement in towns with cases of Covid, closing public spaces such as schools and churches, imposing dusk-to-dawn curfews and implementing social distancing. While effective, these limitations have had significant impacts on businesses across the country, triggering job cuts across multiple sectors.

“Covid has affected me greatly”, says James, a participant on Concern’s Livelihoods programme in Riokomor, Turkana. “I used to work as a teacher in Kabolwo Mixed Secondary School, a private school in Lokitaung, when the pandemic started. Following the government directive, the school was closed and I lost my job which was my main source of income my children cannot go back to school as I cannot afford their fees.”

Children in Gatoto Community School in Mukuru, Nairobi
Gatoto Community School in Mukuru, Nairobi. The Kenyan government has taken a number of measures to curb the spread of Covid-19, including closing public spaces like schools and churches. Photo: Jennifer Nolan / Concern Worldwide

In addition to the country’s mounting unemployment rate, increased food prices due to trade and supply chain disruptions have posed further challenges for parents like James. Now he can’t afford the luxury of providing a balanced, nutritious diet for his children. “We can no longer go to the neighbours to borrow food out of fear for contracting the disease”, he adds.

Galgallo, another participant on Concern’s Livelihoods programme, had previously been dependent on support from his community for basic necessities like food. “Covid-19 has affected my life negatively because many community engagement forums supported by a number of NGO’s that we used to take part in and benefitted from were suspended by the government when the pandemic started.” While relief initiatives run by the government are ongoing, the demand far outweighs the supply and many people including Galgallo have not benefitted. Many times this has made his family to go hungry or skip lunch due to lack of money to buy food.

A changing community

There has also been increasing instability among communities hit hardest by the pandemic. “The youths here have turned to crime after they lost their source of income,” Julia tells us. “These young boys run small businesses like selling shoes, but now no one is buying so they are turning to stealing as a way of life.” Julia also mentions that she’s seen teenage pregnancies rising as more young girls turn to sex work to survive and provide for their families.

The community spirit that so many take pride in is being challenged.

“The virus has changed the way we interact; fear of contracting the virus has made people stay away from each other,” Katelo from Marsabit County says. “More people are becoming solitary, opting to spend their time at home with their families.”

'Stay at home' graffiti in Nairobi
Covid-19 graffiti by the Art 360 artist collective in Nairobi warns people to stay at home. Photo: Ed Ram / Concern Worldwide

Galgallo, who also lives in Marsabit County, reflects how the community would help each other in times of need before the pandemic. “The community I come from, the Gabra, are a generous community. Even visitors were so welcomed and given food if they lacked it but all that is no longer possible. We used to help each other in times of needs through Harambees (communal fundraising) for the needy.”

In an uplifting moment, Maureen, the Manager of Concern’s Governance Programme in Nairobi, tells us how, despite the circumstances, her community recently came together and managed to fundraise for the medical bills of local families whose loved ones were being treated for Covid.

“On the positive side,” Maureen adds, “the pandemic has allowed me and my family to bond at a level that was not possible before, since everyone was busy with work and school-related stuff. We have gotten closer as a family during this time.”

Through our Coronavirus Emergency Appeal, we’ve been tackling Covid-19 in Kenya by improving people’s access to clean water, providing cash transfers so people can buy food and necessities, and supplying soap and hand sanitiser to prevent the spread of the virus. Our awareness campaigns are ensuring that people receive accurate information about the virus, and we’re training healthcare workers to recognise and tackle the symptoms of Covid-19.

Donations have been providing a vital lifeline to the world’s most vulnerable people, but we need more support to continue this life-saving work. Please donate now to our Coronavirus Emergency Appeal.

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