Women and children fell to the ground, bloodied and trampled in a desperate surge for food being handed out in a Nairobi slum, as police fired tear gas and men with sticks beat the hungry.
As African countries grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic, observers warn that the traumatic scenes which played out on Friday last week would not be the last if governments fail to help millions of urban poor who live hand-to-mouth.
“I give them [the government] one to two weeks before things get worse. Not in terms of the coronavirus, but in terms of hunger,” said Kennedy Odede, who runs Shining Hope For Communities, a grassroots movement that works in the Nairobi slum of Kibera and other informal settlements in Kenya.
“If it continues like this, we might be playing with fire,” Odede added.
Kenya has so far cordoned off the capital and parts of its coastline and imposed a nighttime curfew and other social distancing measures.
Many of these restrictions are having wrenching effects, causing loss of jobs among the poor, Odede said.
While Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta has wielded the threat of a full lockdown to get citizens to comply with the rules, officials have said that it is an agonizing choice, especially as 60 percent of Nairobi’s residents live in slums.
“Locking up people in the slums will be the last option. A lot needs to be done before that,” a high-ranking security official said on condition of anonymity.
While much of the developed world waited weeks to begin taking action, countries in Africa rapidly shut borders and banned mass gatherings.
Mauritius, Rwanda and Tunisia were the first to impose full lockdowns, with Mauritius going so far as to shut supermarkets and bakeries for 10 days.
South Africa is the biggest economy on the continent to completely confine its citizens, while Nigeria imposed lockdowns on Lagos — the continent’s largest city — and its capital Abuja, which on Monday were extended for another two weeks.
Both have millions of people packed tightly in urban slums.
“The inevitable reaction has been to follow what the rest of the world is doing,” said Jakkie Cilliers of the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies, which has called for Africans to come up with a “unique solution” to stave off the coronavirus crisis.
“A lockdown is unenforceable and unsustainable across much of Africa. You are trying to do something that is not possible and you are condemning people to a choice between starving and getting sick,” Cilliers said.
“It’s not possible for 10 people living in a tin shack ... to not go outside for three weeks,” Cilliers added.
In sub-Saharan Africa, Liberia and Zimbabwe have also imposed full lockdowns, but most nations across the continent have stopped short of forcing all of their citizens to stay indoors.
Madagascar and Ghana have completely locked down selected regions and towns, while Senegal, Mauritania, Guinea, Mali, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso and Niger have imposed states of emergency and nighttime curfews.
Ethiopia, with a population of over 100 million, has closed borders and schools, and discouraged large gatherings, but has yet to restrict citizens’ movement.
“We can’t impose a lockdown like more developed nations, as there are many citizens who don’t have homes,” Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said. “Even those who have homes have to make ends meet daily.”
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