Citizen activism takes root in Kenya amid fight against Covid-19

For about eight months now, Kenya has been reeling from the manifold impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, first announced in Wuhan, China, on December 31, 2019. 

About three months since then, the pandemic struck in Kenya, making 2020 as eventful as the movies. The disease is still spreading, with over 45,000 cases and nearly 850 deaths reported by October 20. Globally, according to case tracker Worldometer, the virus has infected more than 40.7 million people and killed more than a million so far.

The irony in Kenya, however, is that news on the Covid-19 pandemic no longer strikes the same nerve it once did, as citizens of neighbouring Tanzania carry on months after President John Magufuli declared the country virus-free. Tanzania, seemingly banking more on prayers than science, stopped releasing its Covid-19 statistics.

Kenya initially took tough measures such as banning inter-county travel and passenger flights to and from the country, banning the sale of alcohol, closing schools, bars and restaurants, banning social gatherings, restricting numbers at funerals and imposing a strict nighttime curfew that was enforced by police officers.  Seven months later, and with a significant decline in the number of cases, albeit due to inefficient testing, the government has eased the measures.

A man sells face masks for use in preventing the spread of Covid-19 on Tom Mboya Street in the Nairobi central business district on October 19, 2020. Jill Namatsi | Gamani Kenya

Members of the public can now take inter-country trips and travel to some countries, meet their friends at bars and restaurants as the ban on the sale of alcohol was lifted, attend weddings and funerals, and go to church, as long as they adhere to adjusted numbers and observe basic anti-virus guidelines such as social distancing, wearing face masks and regular hand washing or sanitising. 

For some, the easing of measures has confirmed the idea that the virus never existed in Kenya to begin with, and as such, even masks are no longer being worn – a basic case of ‘Covid fatigue’. 

As UC Davis Health puts it,

“We’re tired of being cooped up, tired of being careful, tired of being scared” and “our collective fatigue is making some people careless – one reason Covid-19 is rising sharply again in California and throughout the US”. 

The situation is not as dire in Kenya as it is in other parts of the world but the fact remains that the disease is being transmitted locally and that there exist people who have been affected directly or indirectly. As such, the individual responsibility that President Uhuru Kenyatta and the Health ministry have been preaching all along has taken these key forms.

Community education

The government often reminds the public of the seriousness of the disease and urges each person to take utmost responsibility but this has not stopped some people’s belief that the virus does not exist and questions about the sources of the government’s statistics, some which come with glaring errors that sometimes go uncorrected.

On March 30, Kenya announced community transmission of the virus, saying there were no more imported cases, presenting an even greater need for strict adherence to guidelines as well as societal monitoring as part of efforts for containing the spread.

In the Covid-19 era, community education has been on matters including how the disease emerged, how it is spread, how to prevent it, where to get tested, who to call in case of an emergency, what to eat to stay healthy, the authorities to go to with suspected cases of the virus or cases of violation of anti-virus rules, and where and how to seek redress in the case of police brutality on legal matters such as negligence by hospitals.

Ernest Cornel, a Communications, Monitoring and Evaluation Officer at Muslims for Human Rights (Muhuri) in Mombasa, has taken up civic education with the help of the organisation.

Cornel says the subjects of their civic education depend on current events, such as the declaration by the WHO and other organisations that social distancing, frequent handwashing and sanitising are the top measures for preventing spread of the virus.

For populations without internet access, Muhuri has designed and distributed IEC materials with Covid-19 messages on prevention and how the disease is contracted.  Muhuri has placed informative banners and posters at strategic points across the Coast and Garissa counties to ensure maximum access by those offline. The messaging is mostly in Swahili, a language understood by many in the region. 

Education on police brutality became vital after yet another season of use of excessive force on members of the public. After Kenya first imposed its curfew, the first night of its enforcement – March 27 – turned chaotic with police officers detaining and beating up those who defied it. Police were filmed lobbing teargas canisters at packed crowds of about 10,000 ferry commuters, injuring hundreds in the ensuing melee — an assault police spokesperson, Charles Owino, defended because “police were provoked”. Some victims suffered broken limbs while others had spinal injuries, fractures and cuts.

The Independent Policing Oversight Authority (Ipoa) said police killed 15 people, one as young as 13. Amid furore by the public, President Uhuru Kenyatta apologised and urged the entire public to work together to help the country overcome the pandemic.

On this, Cornel says:

“When police brutalised ferry users at the Likoni crossing, I had to expose them to show how they were risking the lives of thousands by jamming them closely.”

As a trained journalist, he also writes articles on the subject and does videography and photography. These materials are published on Muhuri’s communication channels, where they can easily be accessed by the public.

“Through Muhuri we have had numerous radio talk shows to sensitise the public about the virus. Guests have been health experts and rights defenders. I’m always behind the camera, providing live coverage through Muhuri’s Facebook page to reach groups without access to radio,” he adds.

Muhuri has also provided aid to the less fortunate in places such as orphanages, where support has declined largely due to the economic effects of the virus, which has caused many revenue streams to dry up. 

“My job here is to shine a spotlight on the plight of these orphans and children’s homes,” he says.

Neighbourhood watches

Some individuals who are part of neighbourhood watches have been watching out for behaviours that could put groups of people at risk. 

Amanda from Nairobi West, says she had to get out of her comfort zone – in which she focused only on herself – and help keep the other people in her apartment building safe. She says she went through culture shock when she moved to the area known for street parties, nyama choma and pubs. Men and women, both young and old, line the streets with their cars and gather in small groups to entertain themselves, drink alcohol and chew miraa, or sometimes just buy large amounts from the many stores in the area for drinking at their homes. 

“When anti-virus restrictions were first implemented, they remained disciplined but months later, they seem tired of staying indoors. The nyama choma and drinking joints are back in business but the rules are not being implemented. Masks remain beneath people’s chins, cash transactions are taking place and sanitisers and proper hand-washing areas are not available in some places,” she says.

A resident of Nairobi County wears his face mask while walking in a crowd of people at Bus Station on October 19, 2020. Jill Namatsi | Gamani Kenya

Amanda says she understands the change in behaviour despite more worrying reports about the disease and that she can’t control the entire neighbourhood but can help those closest to her. It was for this reason that she informed the property manager of a neighbour who held noisy parties at least once every week and caused disturbances. 

“The person was forced to move out the very next day. Young people call it ‘snitching’ and say it is not good but when it comes to life and death, I don’t care about being liked. As far as I’m concerned, I helped to protect my neighbours from a very strange and very deadly disease,” she says.

Nadine, from Lang’ata, echoes Amanda’s remarks and says she will not stop reminding her neighbours to wear face masks, observe physical  distancing, maintain high standards of hygiene and generally stay safe.

As the chairperson of her neighbourhood’s residents’ association, she has taken it upon herself to continuously tell people to follow protocol and warn them of stern action if they do not, armed with authorities’ contacts given her position of influence as a journalist with a background in medicine.

“I share contacts for those who need help and monitor misbehaviour. I have explicitly told the residents that I will report them and shared the channels through which I will do so,” she says.

“Unless someone calls out that behaviour, everybody’s life will be endangered. Isn’t that what everybody should do? I will call the authorities and you will be arrested. It is very clear in our residents’ group. I once stopped a party in the neighbourhood.”

Nadine does not mind that some people in her neighbourhood do not like her for the actions she has taken because she is reducing their chances of exposure to a deadly virus.

“I am sure many wish I could move but it is for their own good. I am also thinking of my children and other children in the neighbourhood. Once one person is exposed, we are done for,” she says, and thanks neighbours who have been supportive.

Using their own money, they have installed a handwashing point and bought masks and sanitisers. Three doctors live within the compound and can help in case of emergencies.

“I cannot keep quiet as bad behaviour goes on so this is something I will keep doing. We do it on a voluntary basis so it does not cost us anything.  People should stop misbehaving and everybody should be their neighbours’ keeper.”

Mental health support

With the pandemic, the country was locked down, the wearing of face masks and other unusual routines introduced, businesses shut, tens of thousands fired from their jobs and salaries slashed amid efforts for all to survive.

And that was not all. The developments added to the mental health burden with people wondering what the future held as predictions, even by professionals, turned difficult.

A few years ago, mental health conversations did not not have much of a place in Kenya and many other parts of the world. But as more and more people gained the courage to speak – whether celebrities through their art, the media through coverage of the many cases, governments through national initiatives, mental wellness organisations through campaigns or regular folk through self-help groups and social media – a new age unfolded. 

Today, mental health support continues to take many forms, including stories on journeys by people with various conditions, best friend projects that simply entail checking on the well-being of people in your circles and social media campaigns using recurring hashtags such as #MentalHealthKE and #MentalHealthAwareness.

Audrey from Kakamega, who refers to herself as a mental health enthusiast, acknowledges that she is not an expert in the field but says that watching a virus turn the world upside down has caused her to be more compassionate. 

“Nowadays I ask people, even strangers, how they are coping under the circumstances, how their families are and how their businesses are doing. It’s the humane thing to do, whether in a conversation with a neighbour, a taxi driver or friends,” she says.

Audrey highlights the case of a taxi driver and friend, who told her he was stressed and feared he would fall into depression. She says she encouraged him to speak to a close friend or go to a counselling centre. She also checked on him regularly till she was satisfied that she no longer needed to worry about him.

Mental health support has also been through events surrounding World Mental Health Day, which is marked every October 10. An example is #MindFest, a virtual concert at which people with various mental health experiences will showcase their talents. It was aired live on October 10, from 3pm to 6pm, on the YouTube and Facebook pages of the Chiromo Mental Health Hospital.

‘Kenyans for Kenya’

In the area of financial aid for the most vulnerable populations, numerous financial initiatives have emerged, key among them being the national donations campaign under the Kenya Covid-19 Fund. Kenyans are known for coming together to help those in dire need of financial and other kinds of aid, the most notable campaign being ‘Kenyans for Kenya’. This time round, the government decided to manage the fundraising for the sake of centralised giving and to prevent cases of fraud. As of October 4, 2020, the fund had received cash and in-kind donations totalling close to Sh3 billion.

Organisations and individuals gave collectively to the national fund and singly to courses of choice, supporting vulnerable groups and people within their circles. Given the sensitivity of financial matters and past cases of fraud, contributing is entirely at one’s own discretion.

Chris Mandi from Nairobi started an initiative dubbed #KenyansUnitedAgainstCovid-19 that seeks to bring individuals, private partners and the government into a strong partnership to help vulnerable members of the public. Mandi cites the shaky future the informal workforce faces and the existence of large slums in Kenya’s cities, where the priority is not to buy items such as masks and sanitiser for daily use but more basic household items such as food.

He also notes an increase in cases of homelessness, going by the number of families that live on the streets of cities such as Nairobi. According to a policy working paper published by the World Bank, an estimated 62 per cent of Kisumu is under informal settlements followed by Nairobi at 41 per cent.

Less than half or 49 per cent of the urban population in Kisumu is considered poor while in Nairobi the figure stands at 43 per cent. This compares to an average 33 per cent informal settlement coverage of all the key 15 towns sampled nationwide and a mean poverty rate of 51 per cent of households.

Disturbingly, the World Bank says, “despite the big number of people, the earnings differentials between the formal and informal sectors are significant”.

Mandi is also inspired by his background – he was born and raised in Kawangware, a low-income area in Nairobi, so he felt he had to rise to the occasion and help those experiencing the difficulties he once did.

Residents of Mombasa County are pictured at the Likoni crossing in this file photo, walking past taps installed to make handwashing easier, as part of measures against the spread of the coronavirus. Ernest Cornel | Muhuri

“I started at a personal level by buying masks and distributing them to people in the informal sector in Kawangware. I have also been raising awareness on the basic ways to prevent infection,” he says.

He adds that he has also written proposals to local and international donors and will soon set up an M-Pesa number for donations.

Regarding the government’s efforts, he says police must rebuild or strengthen the public’s trust in them and stop the use of excessive force when enforcing directives because it is almost always unnecessary. 

“The government also needs to pay attention to youths as they are the brains, energies and innovators that all growing nations require and they make up the largest portion of the population.”

He would also like transparency about the distribution of funds collected through the Kenya Covid-19 Emergency Response Fund as many in need of the support have yet to receive it, six months since the first case of the virus was confirmed in Kenya.