Isolation Is Not Always An Option: COVID-19 in Kenya
April 10, 2020
Alec Walsh: Hey Duncan, thanks for agreeing to speak with us. Could you give us a brief rundown of your position at the UN as well as your journalism experience in East Africa?
Duncan Moore: Thanks for having me. Currently I’m a part time multimedia consultant for the UN Environment Programme in Nairobi, shooting and editing photos and videos. The rest of the time I work as a freelance journalist, producing both written and visual content for publications such as The Guardian, BBC, Al Jazeera and more. I’ve covered a range of topics in East Africa, from illegal gold mining in Western Kenya to vintage taxis in Ethiopia. There is no shortage of interesting stories to be found in this region.
People are scared, but here in the slum we work hand-to-mouth he said. If you don't work you don't eat.
No work, no food': For Kibera dwellers, quarantine not an option
Alec Walsh: In your recent articles for The Guardian and Al Jazeera, you paint a picture of life during the COVID-19 pandemic in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital. Many people are unable to self-isolate despite strict government measures including closed borders, shutting down bars, and school closures. At this point are people more worried about a lockdown or the pandemic itself?
Duncan Moore: After the first case was reported about two weeks ago (March 12) the government acted relatively quickly (especially compared to the response in the United States), shutting down schools, bars and closing the border almost immediately. A curfew recently went into effect, prohibiting anyone from leaving their homes between the hours of 7 p.m. and 5 a.m. This was extremely controversial because the police were heavy handed in enforcing the curfew and most of the people affected are in the informal workforce or are poorer workers who have to commute long distances and can’t get home during these times. They’ve essentially had their working hours slashed. Poorer, more vulnerable populations are being hit the hardest economically and also have the hardest time following the social distancing/quarantine directives.
Duncan Moore: Therefore, many people are more concerned about the economic effects coronavirus is causing instead of the virus itself. Any further restrictions could spark serious social unrest. Many areas of the country are already reporting increased crime as criminals take advantage of the curfew and desperate people are forced to steal food. Hunger and safety are much more pressing issues than an invisible virus. I interviewed Emily Nyambura yesterday, a street vendor from the Mathare slum and one of her quotes stands out to me. “We are essentially helpless, we can’t report the police. Most people they prefer Corona then the beatings of the police.”
Alec Walsh: Have you noticed any special measures people who cannot stay home are taking?
Duncan Moore: While it’s hard for much of the population to social distance, masks are becoming more common. Community groups have set up hand washing stations in market areas and public spaces. My apartment complex has started making all the guards and doormen wear gloves and masks, as well as sanitize the hands of anyone entering the building. The government has ordered matatus (minibuses) to provide hand sanitizer and only fill every other seat (they’re normally packed as full as possible), though this has had the unintended consequence of bus fares doubling, further hurting the working class.
Alec Walsh: What are some key differences between how we’re reacting in the US and how the Kenyan population is confronting COVID-19?
Duncan Moore: The government here is a little more authoritarian and can therefore enforce things like the curfew relatively quickly, albeit with little respect for human rights. Individual rights are more ingrained in US culture, which is good for preventing police beatings, but bad for implementing a cohesive national strategy and convincing people to stay inside. The main similarity is both countries lack effective safety nets for low-income workers, which makes it harder for these people to stop working and follow quarantine advice. There’s also been lots of racism towards Asian people in both Kenya and the US.
Alec Walsh: Many U.S. citizens living abroad have been returning to the States despite the risk of travel and mandatory quarantines upon arrival. What made you decide to remain in Kenya?
Duncan Moore: There were many reasons behind my decision but I never really considered returning to the US as a viable option.
Duncan Moore: First was the cost, the only help the US government offered was a $3,500 one-way flight to New York. Paying that, plus potentially having to quarantine two weeks in New York before flying to California, as well as covering rent here just didn’t make sense to me. With all that money I could rent a car and buy enough supplies to go camp out in the wilderness with some friends somewhere until things calm down. I’m also lucky enough to have steady part time work with the UN that I can do from home, though it helps to be in the same time zone.
Duncan Moore: Second was health reasons. Flying and moving through airports is a good way to get sick, and without an immediate reason to leave it seemed irresponsible to travel during a time when experts are calling on everyone to stay home. Should I get sick here, I live down the street from a world class private hospital which my insurance will cover. Having had surgery in Kenya before for a rugby accident, I’m not worried should I have to go to the hospital here.
Duncan Moore: Finally, it’s a fascinating time to be here covering news, watching this event unfold in real time. There is lots of uncertainty and a tense vibe in the city. I’ve made a lot of connections over the past two years and can therefore carry out a lot of reporting just by calling people and doing interviews over the phone. I’m working on getting additional press credentials and hopefully will be able to go out and shoot photos and video, ideally during curfew or something along those lines.
Alec Walsh: Thanks for answering our questions. We look forward to reading your next story. Is there anything else you would like to add?
Duncan Moore: I have another story coming out with Al Jazeera on police brutality during the curfew, possibly tomorrow. I also have another in the pipeline about domestic African workers trapped in Saudi Arabia. I will let you know when they come out.
That was Duncan Moore, journalist and Multimedia Consultant for the UN Environment Programme in Nairobi, Kenya. You can find out more about COVID-19 in Nairobi and read Duncan’s full articles through the links below.