Youth in Kenya at the forefront of COVID–19 prevention

By Kenyan journalist Christabel Ligami, first published in ScienceAfrica.

Linda Adongo, 28, was born in Mathare slum and is now raising her two children in the slum despite the challenges of water shortages and congestion.

“This has been my home for the last 28 years and my two children will grow up here,” says Adongo.

But now with the COVID–19 pandemic that seems to be never-ending, Mathare residents, just like in any other slum, have really been feeling the effects of water shortages and congestion.

Luckily for Adongo, she has been benefiting from free water delivered nearby her house by the Billian Foundation three times a week.

“It is the first time in my life that I have access to free water. There is no way that we could have afforded buying water for hand washing especially for the kids who are constantly outside playing,” she says.

“At first when the government announced that everyone should wash their hands and sanitize, no one took it seriously until the curfew and lockdown were introduced. We then realized that COVID–19 is serious”.

Luckily, she says, the Billian Foundation immediately stepped in to help. Water points have been installed in the slum where the households are allowed to draw water for their use and to wash their hands.

“Now as the children play outside they have water points everywhere where they wash their hands. This has really helped. We also get free water three days a week which has saved us money because we buy water every day for use at 1 cent [US$] for 20 litres,” she says.

Billian is a nonprofit organization that works to improve the lives of children and young people in Mathare by providing safe environments, and nurtures young talent through music, education and dance all under the umbrella of the Billian Music Family Resource and Leadership Centre.

Since March 2020 when the COVID–19 pandemic began, the organization shifted its focus to helping people during this global pandemic as they could not offer their usual services.

Each week about 20,000 litres of water is supplied two to three times into erected tanks. Every household gets about 100 litres of water for free on the day of supply.

Billian Ojiwa, the founder and Chief Executive Officer of the organization, grew up in Mathare so he understands the challenges those who live here go through.

According to Billian, even though the government was insisting on hand washing, sanitization and social distancing as preventive measures for the spread of COVID-19, it was going to be a challenge in the slum. Now with free water, hand washing measures are being adopted by most people. However many are starting to struggle because they can’t go to work and feed their families.

“Life in the slum is a hustle. The priority is to look for food and pay for your housing. Buying a mask and hand washing/sanitizing for them is a luxury even though they know they have to protect themselves and it is important,” he says.

Apart from water distribution in Mathare, the Billian Foundation has also set up a centre where women manufacture face masks and distribute them to residents in the slum. This is a way of also empowering the women.

“We also give food vouchers worth US$5 to every household that the people use to purchase foods and supplies like cooking oil, sugar, maize flour and soap,” says Billian, adding that the majority of the people in the slum are casual labourers and so most of them lost their jobs following the COVID-19 outbreak.

The foundation makes use of Community Health Volunteers (CHV), who are also residents of the slum, to identify these households and to distribute the food vouchers, masks and control the water distribution.

The foundation works in partnership with other organisations including August 7th Memorial Park, FootPrints for Change, Crime Sio Poa, and Kenya Unite.

The Billian Foundation is also working at establishing fundraising partnerships with Billian’s friends in the diaspora who also grew up in the slum.

Margret Wanjiru, 69, says that before the COVID-19 outbreak she relied on her son who worked for a construction firm to get food and housing. But since he lost his job in April 2020 due to the COVID-19 outbreak, it has been difficult for her to survive.

“It is a good thing that now I am getting food every week to sustain me otherwise it was becoming difficult,” says Margret.

The foundation has been able to reach over 3,000 households and produces at least 200 masks every day to distribute to the people.

“We hope that we shall be able to reach more people if the government comes in to support us and also if we can partner with other organizations, because we only rely on well-wishers and fundraising, which is not sustainable,” says Billian.

He says the distribution of water, masks and food vouchers are precautionary measures to help people protect themselves and reduce the risk of getting infected.

As COVID-19 cases continue to rise in Kenya, the government has taken strict preventive measures to contain its spread. Some of these measures include compulsory wearing of masks while in public places, washing hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds several times a day, maintaining a distance of at least 1.5 meters, and the provision of soap and water or alcohol-based sanitizers by businesses to their customers. Failure to adhere to these measures can result in a jail term of six months or a fine of US$200.

On October 16, Kenya reported 43,143 COVID-19 cases, 805 deaths and 31,508 recoveries.

In an effort to control the spread of COVID-19 cases, the slums face a bigger challenge of poor sanitation, limited access to clean water, and congestion of closely built houses. This means that measures like social distancing and frequent hand washing are next to impossible for people in slums to observe.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) warns that low income settlements like Mathare will become crucial battlegrounds if COVID-19 spreads further in sub-Saharan Africa, where 55% of the population live in urban areas.

“The abject poverty among the inhabitants leave them with the dilemma of whether to buy food or sanitizers to keep their hands clean. The former always wins. With insecure property rights, low-quality housing, limited basic services, and poor sanitation, these informal settlements aggregate risk factors that accelerate the spread of infection,” says the WHO.

According to a 2019 World Bank working policy report, 41% of Nairobi’s population live in informal settlements, meaning about 1.8 million of the city’s 4.4 million population, according to the 2019 Kenyan census.

The report also states that 43% of Nairobi’s population is considered to be poor. The densely populated areas lack household water and sanitation, have overcrowded public transport, limited access to formal healthcare facilities, and lack basic services.

The United Nations Development Programme policy brief on the socioeconomic impact of COVID-19 on low income settlements indicates that urban poor in informal settlements are facing enormous strain from the virus as social distancing, self-isolation and even hand washing are impossible luxuries, since they have to make the unenviable choice between trying to avoid the disease and the very real possibility of hunger.