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Coronavirus in Kenya and the Ugly Rich-Poor Gap


One of the things that I am noting is that Coronavirus has since distinguished itself as circulating largely among a certain class of the Kenyan society and I suspect across many countries in Africa. Unlike in the global north where a bulk of people across social-economic status easily mingle in spaces like public transport (flights, trains, public buses etc) in most of Africa, Kenya in particular, things like flights are exclusively for a certain class. And then our stratification is such that the rich and middle class have often maintained social distance from the poor. As such, strictly speaking, social distancing has not started with Coronavirus in places like Nairobi. We do know for a fact that people who dwell in upmarket Nairobi are the ones who nearly exclusively use flights; they do not use matatus, they shop in malls etc. Hence, even under ‘normal’ circumstances, their contact with the majority poor is minimal, often narrowed to those who serve them e.g. in gardening, domestic chores etc.

Now that Coronavirus came with flights, it is plausible why we haven’t seen it spread fast among the majority poor in this country who have actually moved on with their lives nearly as normal despite various government directives on social distancing remote working and so on. The behavior of the majority poor of our society has attracted anger from the privileged who accuse the former of not heeding government directive to social distance etc. Largely the people parroting the need to observe government directives without interrogating their practicality in various contexts are the privileged few. They can afford staying home and since they hardly interact with the poor, this group of people hardly seem to understand how difficult it is for the poor to stay home and be alive. In fact, government measures that include doing everything “at your own cost”, washing hands always, social distancing, wearing masks etc are nearly impossible to implement among the majority poor of this country. This is a reality that the rich are totally oblivious of. I was in Kibra two days ago and life is on as usual. I remember speaking to a friend and I mentioned to her that I was in Kibra and she exclaimed: “God, why do you have to take such a risk!” And that appears normal. It appears normal because we are a society that has since normalised a dubious association of risk to the poor. We have normalised criminalisation of poverty. No wonder we shamelessly blame the poor for being poor. Justify their misery on sickening arguments such as they are poor because they don’t work hard enough. We justify police brutality against the poor by arguing “wako vichwa ngumu” etc. These are familiar narratives.

There is therefore a natural impulse to want to associate diseases with poverty. The same logic comes to bear during this pandemic. People who enjoy privilege tend to want to put the poor at bay. Because in their thinking, these poor will bring them the virus. We had it recently when a Kibra-based woman was featured on TV explaining that her job (washing clothes etc in middle class neighborhoods) has greatly been affected since ‘masonko ni kama wanaona tutawapelekea corona.” While this is what the privileged are doing, evidence points in the opposite direction. In fact, the Coronavirus preference is higher among the people of the higher social and economic standing compared to those in the lower part of the pyramid. There are hardly any reported cases of Coronavirus in Kibra, which is the biggest informal settlement in Kenya and beyond. So, while my friend wonders why I am taking such a huge risk to visit Kibra, she occasionally goes to a shopping mall to replenish her utilities, food etc. Privilege and the normalization of association of risks and diseases etc to poverty blinds her from seeing a simple fact. That the risk of contracting Coronavirus in a Nairobi shopping mall is much higher compared to a walk in Kibra.

Going back to government measures. It is annoying than it is amusing that government wants people who don’t have access to reliable running water to wash their hands continuously. This is insulting. It is annoying. Especially because access to clean and safe water is a human right and it is the responsibility of government to ensure this very basic right. Then, these people would have to decide between not going to work and dying of hunger or risking Coronavirus to put food on their tables. Surely, the latter option would appear reasonable. I would choose it too. The same with masks. Frankly, you should be ashamed when you find yourself wondering “why people can’t just follow government directive and wear masks.” Privilege does blind people from seeing just how inaccessible a mask could be to a vast majority of our people. The cheapest masks (whose quality I even doubt) are retailing at about Ksh. 50. That is the price of vegetables for a majority of households in the ghetto. Kama ungekuwa wewe ungefanya nini? Spend a day’s earning on vegetable or a mask?

Kawangware has recently hit the headlines as an emerging epicenter of Coronavirus in Nairobi. We know why Coronavirus is terrorizing the poor of Kawangware. A majority of the people dwelling there are domestic servants (of course being exploited to the core by doing too much work and being paid too little) of the rich people in Lavington and Karen. It is rumored in this city that we have a lot more cases of Coronavirus than government is willing and / or able to ascertain or say. There are private entities like Lancet and now Nairobi Hospital that are testing for Covid-19. The prices of the tests are too high that only the rich can afford. A lot of the privileged few who have since tested positive for Covid-19 are under home-care and/or admitted in some secluded areas in some of these elitist private hospitals. It is the rich of Lavington and Karen that are actually responsible for the spreading Coronavirus in poor neighborhoods like Kawangware and not the other way round. Let’s spot privilege. It is the rich who are infecting the poor with the Covid-19. This is not a local outbreak that emerged from some slums. It is a virus that was imported. It was flown in; this much have been by those who can actually fly. In Kenya, those are people of higher socio-economic status. If, led by the US, the West were to succeed in compelling China to meet some of the costs related to the damages of Coronavirus (based on the fact that it started in China and also how China handled  it), then the people of Kawangware and other of Nairobi’s lowly settlements too should be compensated by those in richer neighborhoods.

Coronavirus in Kenya and the Ugly Rich-Poor Gap Coronavirus in Kenya and the Ugly Rich-Poor Gap Reviewed by Ibrahim Magara on May 01, 2020 Rating: 5

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