Supporting communities living in urban informal settlements to protect themselves from COVID-19

March 31, 2020

The cautionary measures prescribed by World Health Organization (WHO) to protect oneself from COVID-19 have been widely shared through the mainstream and social media. I have observed a huge exchange of information on various social media avenues. As a result, I have pondered about people without access to some of these platforms. Are they getting the same information? How is this information is being assimilated by the low-income communities? I spoke to a handful of low-income community members, living in informal settlements in Nairobi to understand how these directives are being received, understood and implemented by these community members, a week after the issuance of these measures in Kenya.

While news channels and various social media platforms are abuzz with experiences of COVID-19 from different places across the world, ignorance, doubt, misinformation abounds among these community members as shared by a couple of community health volunteers (CHVs) that l spoke to. Even more disturbing is the reluctance to take up preventative measures as stipulated by the Ministry of Health. CHVs living and working in Korogocho, an informal settlement in Nairobi, emphasize the need to sensitize community members on the information given by the Ministry of Health.

Disseminating this information within the communities through CHVs and utilizing health-workers to provide information through community radio stations radio interactively can potentially heighten the alert among community members. These channels can additionally raise the community’s understanding on the nature of the disease, connecting this to the need to observe respiratory hygiene and overall personal protection. Interactive channels like radio that allow people to ask their questions and receive answers can dispel myths, give clarity on symptoms and remove misinformation. This kind of information dispersion among community members will create urgency and responsiveness to the directives.

Unlike up-market neighborhoods that have public infrastructure, informal settlements lack physical infrastructure like roads, proper housing, water and sanitation facilities and further complicated by the high population densities1. This reality makes precautionary measures such as social distancing and hand hygiene an obvious challenge. The limited size of the housing structures makes it undesirable to stay indoors. It is common to find children seeking solace outdoors, playing with other children who likewise have limited space to call home. The actual distance between one household to another provides for no social distance among neighbors. Utility vendors, eateries, pubs and grocery shops alike share the same crowded set-ups devoid of space, let alone distancing.

Solutions to counter such restrictions to social distancing such as regularly spraying disinfectants to sanitize slum environments, within and around the homes should be put in place. It must be a consideration to provide these communities with clean water and soap, accompanied by hand washing demonstrations.

Government directives aimed at limiting people’s movements has an immediate impact to household incomes. Low income populations are dependent on attendance to odd jobs for their daily wages. These communities lack the ability to work remotely as is true of odd jobs. Provision of basic food commodities to these communities in times like these can permit them to restrict their own movements and in turn make a contribution to flattening the curve.

In the period of partial restriction to movement, community members going about their daily activities should be given information on how to observe protective measures. For instance, community radio can be utilized to teach boda boda operators to wear gloves and sanitize their hands. ­This could be done by:  

  • availing alcohol sanitizers and showing business operators in these communities how to safeguard themselves and others they serve and enforcing cashless transactions.
  • educating grocery vendors on how to distance themselves and observe hand sanitation around their operations.
  • sensitizing health care workers in these communities on how to respond to potential cases.
  • using the local administration and community health workers to keep community members reminded of the need to protect themselves.

It does mean breaking down the protective practices for various ones in the community appropriately. A small price to pay to safeguard the majority urban slum residents who are highly vulnerable.

1 African Population and Health Research Center (APHRC). 2014. Population and Health Dynamics in Nairobi’s Informal Settlements: Report of the Nairobi Cross-sectional Slums Survey (NCSS) 2012. Nairobi: APHRC.