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Haki Nawiri Afrika

Covid-19: A Crisis, a New Normal, and Community Organising

This post was first published on August 15, 2020.

Since the first case of Covid-19 was reported in Wuhan-China in 2019, the world has in many ways come to a standstill. Jobs have been lost, families have buried their loved ones, police brutality has spiked up and many are nursing injuries brought about by domestic violence at the hands of their spouses. The state meanwhile, has introduced various measures to contain the spread of Covid-19. These include Legal Notice No 50 on restriction of movement of persons in Kenya, quarantine, distribution and sale of face masks among others. But have these measures met communities at their points of need? And in what ways are communities better organising themselves to bridge the gap between their needs and measures implemented by the state?

Some people claim Covid is an equaliser because the affluent can no longer travel abroad for medical check-ups and treatment as has been the norm, as most countries [in the west] have closed their borders. However, for poor Kenyans who depend on daily wages, Covid being considered an equaliser is a fallacy because the restrictions on movement, the imposition of curfews and the ever present fear of police brutality during enforcement of the curfew have pushed many of them deeper into an already worrying and precarious existence. Reality is that the most impacted by Covid-19 in Kenya are the poor and those living in pockets of poverty.

Covid has fundamentally changed the way Kenyans interact. With the stay at home directive as part of containment of Covid 19, many workplaces, both formal and informal, have been closed over the last three months – some for good. Over 1 million people have lost their jobs[1]. For many in informal settlements who depend on wage labour as a source of livelihood, the closure of businesses and loss of job opportunities in sectors such as construction (popularly known as mjengo) or doing laundry (mama fua) means that daily cash flow into households are disrupted.

Furthermore, the closure of schools to contain Covid has disrupted learning for 17 million learners since March, and proposed shifts to online learning have brought to the fore the digital divide in access to education. While some students can afford to continue attending classes via zoom or alternative online platforms, many children and students from informal settlements and other pockets of poverty are unable to do so and will have to stay at home until some form of normalcy is established to continue with their schooling. The digital divide in education is also experienced by students in university and other institutions of higher learning. When the administration of the University of Nairobi proposed digital learning in May for instance, students came out to express disapproval and inability to adopt online learning through the hashtag #UONboycottonlineclasses. Some had travelled back to their rural homes where they have no electricity, others did not have access to laptops or desktop computers, while for others it was too expensive to buy enough data bundles to undertake 2-3 hour learning sessions.

One student succinctly captured this situation in a tweet, “I am from Baringo and there is poor network and no electricity in my area. I need to walk for 3kilometres to access 2G network. How am I supposed to attend online classes?” Reality is that it still is not automatic that university students have access to a laptop or a desktop computer. For some students, especially those from humble backgrounds, digitalisation remains a mirage – except when they are within the university compounds. This is why many make use of libraries where access to university Wi-Fi is assured, or cyber cafes which remain expensive and unsustainable.

With the many economic and social disruptions, Kenyan households have increasingly become zones of violence, as evidenced by a sharp spike in incidences of domestic violence during this Covid period in comparison to the pre-Covid period. This increase can be attributed to shattered sources of livelihoods and the inability to afford basic necessities such as food and shelter, lack of mechanisms to psychologically cope with the aftermath of the pandemic, poor communication at family level among other reasons. Many cases have been reported of families sleeping out in the cold for lack of rent for example in Kayole[2] , while recent evictions in Kariobangi[3] left over 5000 families homeless and at an increased risk of infection by the coronavirus and other respiratory diseases because that demolition happened in the middle of the rainy season.

State response and community organising during the pandemic

Quite fundamentally, the support being availed by the state in informal settlements and other pockets of poverty has not done much to address the plight of the poor, and has further dehumanized the people. Over the past few months, the media has been awash with incidences of people getting injured in stampedes during food distribution like in Kibera[4], or through incidents of police brutality like we saw at the ferry in Mombasa. There have also been multiple incidences of people fleeing from quarantine facilities[5] and the inherent stigma that comes with Covid infection.

It is against this bleak backdrop that communities in informal settlements are organising to survive in the wake of Covid-19. Some are sewing masks and distributing them to fellow community members, while others are making soap or mobilising food and other forms of support for vulnerable households. Young people are utilising their creativity and are for instance creating talking walls in different informal settlements. The Social Justice Centre Theatre Group is packaging information on Covid-19 and creating awareness in informal settlements to protect communities by enabling them access to much needed information. In other places, Mpesa has been used to mobilise resources to buy food, pay rent for families on the verge of being evicted by landlords or sleeping hungry. Others are educating the young in their communities on the dangers of unsafe sex and distributing sanitary towels to vulnerable women and girls. With disrupted sources of income, getting 85 shillings to buy a packet of sanitary pads is a challenge for many Kenyans – for despite closure of airspaces and travel, or cessation of movement, menstruation among women and girls has not stopped due to Covid.

Community organising is a process, and change does not come overnight. While Covid 19 has reawakened the spirit of creativity and humanity within informal settlements and pockets of poverty, these creative and humane efforts must give cognisance to the fact that community organising is a pathway through which people come together to collectively address issues affecting them. When communities come together, new ideas emerge, new solutions are created and new skills acquired. It is a process of having one’s eyes opened to existing capabilities and alternatives. For community organising to be effective, it must originate from the level of the concerned communities. This is because it is the community that understands the problem they are going through. You cannot talk about lack of jobs when you have never been without a job, or understand what it means to have no food if you have always had something to eat. In addition, individuals who’ve had to sleep in the cold at some point because of non-payment of rent for instance, are better placed to understand the pain and agony that comes with forceful eviction. The issues our communities organise around must thus be reflective of the lived realities and conditions of the people. These conversations must be anchored on the people.

Community mobilising is an integral part of community organising. Mobilising communities to take action means that they are ready to respond to the issue(s) at hand. It is of fundamental importance for communities to continue organising post-Covid because it seems Covid will be with humanity for a long time to come. We must also celebrate the various strategies being adopted at the grassroots to ensure survival in an uncertain environment and the many unsung heroes and heroines who are contributing to making life bearable in informal settlements.

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