It’s gonna come soon, it’s gonna come heavy: Coronavirus is on the horizon!

Welcome back. Today I am writing about the number one topic of discussion – Coronavirus!

What most people in the Global North are now experiencing for the first time and in a relatively mild form is part of everyday life for many in the Global South: the juggling of multiple, existential crises. Extreme social rifts and medical care as a luxury good only for the rich. This is, in very broad terms, the starting position in that part of the world which – after China and the global North – now expects a massive spread of the Coronavirus.

The Director-General of the WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, made an urgent appeal: Africa must wake up and prepare for the worst. Easier said than done. After all, a large proportion of the measures that are used here in a fundamental and effective way to combat the Coronavirus cannot be implemented in many developing countries, including Kenya.

In Kenya, and in many African countries in general, there is a lethal combination of weak to non-existent health systems, limited financial resources and inhabitants with a poor immune system. There is already a lack of doctors and medical equipment in many countries. And many Africans cannot afford medicines, let alone hospitalisation.

There are still comparatively few corona infections in Kenya, but according to experts, this is a ticking time bomb. The Kenyan government is taking drastic measures, such as closing schools and universities. But basic advice on how to avoid infection is already coming to nothing in view of the poverty and shortage in many places. So, all the prevention measures that we are now so familiar with in the global North sound absurd in Nairobi’s informal settlements. Let’s put on the infrastructure lens to see why this is so.

A very useful and inexpensive protective measure in the Global North is washing hands. However, for many people in Nairobi’s informal settlements, this is only possible with difficulty or perhaps not at all. As you might assume from reading my previous blog entries, this is because inhabitants don’t have uncomplicated access to running water and soap. Hence, the hygiene measures adopted by the Kenyan government often fail because water and soap are in short supply, particularly in informal settlements. Even disinfectants, which the government recommends when water is not available, have become unaffordable for most people in Nairobi’s informal settlements, at least since the first case of corona became known.

And social distancing in Nairobi’s informal settlements, where six or eight people live in one room? A thing of impossibility! People cannot keep enough distance from each other. As the majority doesn’t have their own cars, public transport in the form of Matatus is the only means of transport. And social distancing on public transport is not possible either. From my own experience, I can say that a small bus with a capacity of 12 people can easily carry 20 people. One doesn’t know when the next bus will leave again. Have a look at this picture of a Matatu.

Matatu in Nairobi’s informal settlements. Source: Mutongi, 2017

With the spread of the Coronavirus, incomes will fall drastically for inhabitants of Nairobi’s informal settlements. For many, this would immediately threaten their existence. If they cannot go out to work, they remain hungry. The vast majority of inhabitants in Nairobi’s informal settlements work in the informal sector, i.e. without any social security. The informal sector is likely to come to a virtual standstill with the rigid measures taken to combat the spread of the Coronavirus.

Have a watch at this video, dealing with the Coronavirus in Kibera.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G0XwVQXofL8

For all their crisis-prone nature, countries of the global South have made significant progress in recent decades in combating poverty and epidemics, and some have good early warning systems. Many African countries, marked by the Ebola epidemic between 2014 and 2016, had already introduced health checks at their borders when Europe was still raving about “scare tactics”. And in many countries, success has been achieved in recent years in the fight against the three big “killers”: tuberculosis, malaria and HIV/AIDS.

What I didn’t tell you in the beginning, this was my last blog post on a specific topic. Next week, we have to say goodbye. But you can look forward to a summary of topics I have discussed, and you have hopefully enjoyed reading about in the last weeks. Until then, stay healthy!

736 words

VISUAL REFERENCES

Featured image: Chiba, Y. (2020) Corona in Nairobi’s informal settlements. Retrieved from https://www.tagesspiegel.de/gesellschaft/panorama/erst-masern-jetzt-auch-noch-corona/25661874.html

Mutongi, K. (2017). Matatu in Nairobi’s informal settlements. Retrieved from https://globalurbanhistory.com/2018/07/31/reading-the-city-from-the-streets/

5 thoughts on “It’s gonna come soon, it’s gonna come heavy: Coronavirus is on the horizon!

  1. As you’ve said, the COVID-19 outbreak is a topic that cannot be ignored, and one that is closely linked to many aspects of UPE. Whilst the damage that the virus has caused across Asia and Europe are shocking, as your blog has demonstrated throughout, the people of Nairobi’s slums are already living in extremely challenging and often unsanitary settlements, and the social distancing measures that have been implemented in developed countries could not be achieved here. The consequences if / when the virus reaches areas such as Kibera will highlight just how privileged those of us who are able to social distance and self-isolate are. We just have to hope that the national lockdowns that countries across Africa are beginning to put into place will be enough to contain it from spreading, as the extent of the destruction that it could bring to places such as these is truly terrifying.

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  2. Hi, thank you for bridging UPE with recent news! If I had not finished my blog by the time Manila was put under total lockdown, I would undoubtly have tried to analyse city resilience in light of pandemics too.
    Reflecting on your post, the exposure of informal settlements – which are widely considered the extreme illustration of frantic urbanization in the global South – to the Coronavirus are an insightful illustration of potential consequences of a very collective organization of life (shared spaces, public transports). As such, the outbreak is the occasion for the North – where urban policies increasingly push for sharing space and enhancing interactions – to learn from the South.
    Secondly, while the spread of the virus in informal settlements is alarming, I am wondering what the reaction of the upper class will be. Nairobi is home to international and regional institutions. As such, its powerful elite strongly impacts the African continent’s development trajectories, and Nairobi itself is seen as a laboratory for urban policy-making such as Smart City projects. Therefore, I would be interested to know if the elite’s reaction will be to increase its segregation from informal settlers to protect itself, or on the contrary, to enhance social cohesion as the wealthiest realise that they are in the same boat as vulnerable communities and that their fate is interdependent.

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    1. Hi Franklin,

      thanks for your great comment – I would like to reply to the second point you raised:

      As you already said, Nairobi is home to a huge number of international organizations, including UNEP and UN-Habitat and you are right in referring to Nairobi as a ‘laboratory for urban policy-making’. In the global discourse, Nairobi is often referred to as an ‘East African development hub’. That makes it even more paradoxical to see these huge inequalities in Nairobi.

      I believe that it is essential for ‘the elite’ to support the ‘urban poor’ because, as you said correctly, “their fate is interdependent”. This is because informal and formal settlements are often very close to each other in terms of proximity (although they are separated in terms of accessing basic services). You can see this in the featured image of my very first blog. Hence, if the Coronavirus spreads in the informal settlements, it will do so also in the formal settlements.

      Some of these organizations, ‘the elite’, have put in place plans on how to support communities in Nairobi’s informal settlements. We can hardly know their motivations behind these measures though – it might be either to protect themselves or to really intend to “enhance social cohesion”.

      The UN family, for example, under the leadership of UN-Water, national and local governments, civil society organizations, women and youth groups and community leaders are aiming to prevent residents of Nairobi’s informal settlements in the following ways:

      “1. Supporting water and sanitation service providers through the Global Water Operators Partnership Alliance (GWOPA) an UN-Habitat-led global network of water and sanitation service providers providing peer support to one another on a not-for-profit basis. Water and sanitation service providers (small scale providers, utilities and local authorities) are instrumental in stalling the spread of COVID-19 in informal settlements. The GWOPA global network can provide technical advice, online training and capacity building support, including sharing of information materials, tools and active learning among utilities on responses to COVID-19. Utilities can be encouraged to maintain water and sanitation service continuity and in ensuring affordability is not a barrier to access for the urban poor.

      2. Putting in place emergency safe drinking water and handwashing facilities in key locations in informal settlements and high-density public places. This involves ensuring emergency preparedness by providing water tanks, standpipes, handwashing facilities and sanitizers along with hygiene messages particularly in crowded areas such as markets, train and bus stations.

      3. Actively engaging community leaders and groups through existing slum networks, youth centres and networks to train community volunteers, set up and manage handwashing facilities and carry out sensitization and awareness campaigns, including disseminating COVID-related messages on handwashing.

      4. Giving priority to the elderly and people living with chronic medical conditions who are the most vulnerable to the effects of COVID-19 in the provision of water and sanitation.”
      You can access the whole article here: https://reliefweb.int/report/kenya/water-handwashing-slums-critical-prevent-covid-19-spreading.

      As part of these efforts, there are water distribution points for handwashing set up. See this link: https://unhabitat.org/kenyan-youth-wash-hands-to-keep-away-covid-19-in-informal-settlement

      Although these measures are put in place, the question remains how effective these measures will be. This is because – simply handwashing and keeping personal hygiene – does not prevent the Coronavirus from spreading. As we see in the Global North, it is also about ‘social distancing’ – and that is clearly not possible in informal settlements.

      What I believe is that the Coronavirus will further reveal the breadth of social and economic inequalities that Nairobi faces. This is because residents of Nairobi’s informal settlements are widely neglected basic services, including water, sanitation, healthcare, and adequate housing. Providing some services like the ones stated above might seem to “enhance social cohesion”, but will not prevent the spread of the Coronavirus in these informal settlements.

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  3. Hi ! Thank you for this post ! You effectively summarized what would mean a COVID-19 outbreak in ‘developing’ countries and cities.
    These places are of course way more vulnerable than UK for example and we can see today how much the epidemic costs to its population, but what is kind of ironic is the fact that:
    Because they faced major epidemic such as Ebola, countries like Kenya or Senegal were more prepared to watch the spread and alert when necessary, as soon as possible, and therefore take measures more rapidly and avoid countless deaths.
    Because most Kenyan and Senegalese cannot travel as we can (almost everywhere we want thanks to our passport) due to financial and migration restrictions, they obviously suffered less from widespread contamination
    So maybe it would be time to stop thinking about such countries, and more generally Africa, as only weak and helpless places, and more as diverse ones with both weaknesses and strengths, like all places. And maybe wealthy countries, by suffering increasing damages at both human and economic levels, will become aware we are all connected on one and only planet, that frontiers are mainly culturally built and that solidarity would be better for all humanity.

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  4. Thanks for another fascinating and very timely post. You point out that epidemics have ravaged African cities in recent decades, from HIV/AIDS to Ebola. The sudden appearance of a pandemic in Europe and the US has been met with horror as the daily lives of everyone have been effected. This is where I think your own research is so important: you’ve shown that wealthier developed have continued to ignore the threat posed by epidemics even as they have watched developing countries suffer. It seems unjust then, that unprepared developed countries can now rely on the relative luxury of social distancing. Your words reveal that social distancing is impractical or even impossible in informal settlements. The risk that the density of informal settlements poses for disease transmission is huge, and will clearly impact the whole of society. Coronavirus appears to represent a crisis of contemporary urbanism, and I hope that even in such miserable circumstances we are able to learn that socio-economic and environmental justice are intrinsic to the well-being of everyone, not just the disadvantaged. I hope we begin to see a move to a more equitable and resilient urbanism as a result.

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