/ 20 March 2020

Hand washing, emergency loans and panic buying: How one Kenyan city is preparing

(Delwyn Verasamy)

“Jesus loves you. And please wash your hands. Sing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star as you do it. Or Fiery Love. But just do it for 20 seconds.” So reads a sign at the Trinity Vineyard Chapel in Nakuru, Kenya, pinned above a hastily erected hand-washing bay. Inside, the church smells like the bleach that has been used to disinfect the pews.

Like everywhere else in the world, Nakuru — with a population of more than half a million people — is trying to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Residents, businesses and the local government are all having to swiftly adapt, even though Nakuru has yet to report a confirmed case of Covid-19 (there were seven confirmed cases in Kenya, as of March 20).

A few blocks away from the church, the Regional Blood Transfusion Centre has security officers manning its gates, squeezing sanitiser on to the hands of anyone who walks into the facility. Nearby, the Nakuru level five hospital — the city’s biggest referral centre — has been forced to limit visitors to its wards to one person per family to limit the spread of any possible infections. Health officials warned that this leeway might close: soon, no visitors will be allowed inside.

The facility, which hosts at least 3 000 people daily, has added 16 more washing bays as a precautionary measure.

Free hand sanitiser has been made available all over town. Gregory Ochieng, a businessman, has not bothered to buy the ones available in the stores, especially since they are being sold at exorbitant prices. “Every time I feel the urge to clean my hands I stroll to a nearby mall or store where it is mandatory for me to clean the hands before I enter their holdings,” he said.

People living with disabilities have been hit hard. Martin Njoroge, a sign-language instructor, took to social media to inform his fellow deaf colleagues about the novel coronavirus. He said that many deaf people have been forced to rely on videos for information about the virus, which are often fake and exaggerated. Njoroge took it on himself to educate the deaf about the disease through short video clips, distributing them on social-media platforms. 

“Whereas they are the most vulnerable, when it comes to persons living with disability, there has not been any initiative by the government to teach them any preventive measures. In fact, many parents missed the directive by President Uhuru Kenyatta stipulating that parents should pick their children from school by Wednesday,” he said.

Panic-buying has forced many of the residents into seeking emergency loans from mobile money lending platforms such as Tala and Branch. “I applied for a loan from all the platforms I could access and went shopping for food. Unfortunately, shops have also increased the cost of the goods and especially the most essential commodities like sanitisers,” said Fatma Najib.

She justified the loans, citing that she had to bulk shop for 30 days in case the government implemented a lockdown. “I didn’t want to risk not having food in the house. I will seek ways on how to clear the loans once the self-quarantine is over,” she added.

On the streets, various shops have set up washing bays on their verandahs making it possible for people in transit and families who live on the streets to sanitise.

Public transport is also taking action, with washing bays being set up at various bus stations. At Njoroline Matatu Park, passengers are required to wash their hands with soapy water before they board a tuk-tuk. Not all passengers are pleased.

“My hands were left soapy. I refused several times to wash my hands but the other passengers almost beat me up, blocking me from accessing the door of the van. I had to clean it unwillingly,” says Faith Cheptoo.

Panic-buying has led to many people thronging the markets and grocery stores, creating an artificial shortage, especially of vegetables. At the main wholesale market, a group of traders is not taking any chances and ensuring that anyone seeking to enter the market cleans their hands.  

“However, no one is taking a keen interest in the people leaving the facility. They ignore the fact that one can contract corona while inside the market and distribute it outside the facility. It is important to clean the hands both on entry and exit,” says retailer Maureen Nyaboke.

The crisis is having a major effect on some families. Njambi Kinyanjui has been separated from her daughter, who is a student in Mombasa, some 650km away. “I did not have emergency cash when the president declared that colleges will be shut at the end of this week, I got into a frenzy. I have no idea what to do especially since buses have hiked their fare,” she added. 

The Nakuru county government insists that they are  well equipped to deal with the pandemic.

Gerald Maina, the county’s head of preventive and promotive health services, points out that although they have had eight suspected cases none has tested positive for the virus. Maina added that two isolation centers have been identified, both with a total of 31 beds. In addition, 500 health workers have undergone training on how to handle the coronavirus.

He insists that the biggest challenge is the dissemination of fake news. “The hallmark of this is to avoid infection by ensuring that we pass the right information to the residents,” he said.

Maina says that they are in the process of offering temporary accommodation for health workers who are attending to suspected corona vases to prevent cross infections. “As a county, we wouldn’t want to lose any patient from this global pandemic.”