Fear for hunger not for COVID-19 in Kenya

Von Rowan Alumasa Alusiuolais

Alarmed by a potential rise in food insecurity during the COVID-19 pandemic, many developing countries are unable to mount special efforts to keep agriculture safely running as an essential business and markets well supplied in affordable and nutritious food. They are incapable to ensure food security for their most vulnerable people. The situation has led to civil unrest in Kenya and it is feared that its magnitude might increase.

It seemed like a myth to me when I heard about COVID-19 for the very first time in January. So far away, it felt. In Kenya, the first COVID-19 case was announced in early March 2020. This news scared me. I was worried about my family and like everyone else, I was terrified about the most vulnerable people and especially the urban slum dwellers. Several political and economic leaders have called out on global response to COVID-19. Recently, WHO held its 73rd World Health Assembly and the delegates approved a historic resolution for the world to  fight the COVID-19 pandemic together.

Lock downs and curfews have been declared across Africa. Businesses have been closed without clear mitigation measures to assist the affected owners, workers and their families. The African Union has published guidance on community social distancing. The guidelines are, however, too general. There is not any discussion about the most vulnerable. For people who do not have the luxury of bank savings, social distancing and stay at home measures are a clear threat to their lifeline of daily income. Such measures might be highly ineffective, as people are more likely to disobey the law than staying at home and go hungry. This has led to civil unrest in most African countries including Kenya to which governments have responded with violence for not obeying curfews and other restrictions. Slums in Kenya are the worst affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and the prevention  measures that have been put in place.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), currently, some 820 million people around the world are experiencing chronic hunger. FAO is particularly concerned about the pandemic’s impacts on vulnerable communities which are grappling with hunger or other crises – including the Desert Locust outbreak in the Horn of Africa. Kenya is a country most affected by the Locust outbreak. FAO has given recommendations to governments on how to handle the crisis. The COVID-19 pandemic will see more than a quarter of a billion people suffering from acute hunger by the end of the year, this is according to new figures from the World Food Programme. Additionally, Global land scape forum has organised a digital conference on food in the time of crises with an aim of future mitigation measures towards food insecurity and pandemic. Despite these advisories and conferences, severe hunger is already being experienced in Africa and most especially Kenya.

Kibera, an informal settlement located in the heart of Nairobi, is estimated to have a density of about 90,000–100,000 inhabitants per km2. The settlement has limited public space. This increases social interaction. Most people are self-employed, employed in the informal sector or get work on a day by day basis. None of those work opportunities provide a regular income. Almost all households can be characterised as vulnerable and poor. This  situation is also the same in  Mathare slum. The World Health Organization recommended preventive measures to limit the spread of COVID-19. However, those measures are often almost impossible to implement in this environment.

COVID-19 has made life more agonising for the Kibera slum dwellers who depend on a daily income. Most of them have skipped a meal or have eaten less in the past weeks because they did not have enough money to buy food. Spotting food distribution, dwellers tried to force their way through a gate outside a district office for a chance to grab the supplies to keep their families fed for another day. The incident left many people injured and hospitalised.  This reflects the dire situation that exists not just in Kibera but also other slums in Kenya as the resident’s surge for food aid.

Although the Constitution of the Republic of Kenya explicitly guarantees the right to adequate food for its citizens, no aid has yet been granted. It is unethical and distressing to keep vulnerable people in lockdown without having their basic needs covered. To help the urban poor the Kenyan government should prioritize providing basic needs, including fresh water and food. There is need to partner with existing community leadership and non-governmental organisations to form emergency planning committees in charting the appropriate response to the pandemic. Youth groups and other local existing groups could form a social media network for food and fund-raising activities. Finally, the Kenyan government should mobilize resources to expand their social safety nets, specifically to ease the effect on the most vulnerable population in urban areas who are living from hand-to- mouth. These measures will aid in not only ensuring that  people have sufficient and healthy food but also as an opportunity for the people to take the pandemic seriously and put into practice the measures that have been given out by the government.



About the author

Rowan Alumasa Alusiuolais is an Environmental Specialist with virtually 10 years of practical work experience in developing, managing and monitoring projects and policies within the East Africa Region. Her proficiency is in areas related to environmental conservation, climate change adaptation and mitigation, food security and community engagement. She has worked with several organizations including: CARE International in Kenya, World Vision, Tetra Tech and UNEP. She is an Alexander Von Humboldt Fellow for International Climate  Protection  for  the year 2020/ 2021 at Peace Academy. Her research focuses on the potential of REDD+ on conflict creation  in Kenya and minimising it while contributing to sustainable development at local level.