The coronavirus, and the government-imposed lockdowns, pose an especially serious threat in countries where many poor families live in “informal settlements” (slums). One of those countries is Kenya, where the state imposed an 11-hour curfew in mid-March.
Now, with many Kenyans threatened by starvation, the country’s Catholic bishops have launched an urgent appeal for humanitarian aid.
In a statement signed by the chairman of the bishops’ conference, Archbishop Philip Arnoldo, the bishops asked “all Christians, partners and people of goodwill to support our emergency response initiatives.”
They explained that the emergency operation would provide at-risk populations items such as basic foodstuffs, soap and disinfectant, and information.
According to the bishops, an estimated 2.4m people in informal settlements will be hard-hit by the pandemic, since the areas “are densely populated with inadequate household water and sanitation, little or no waste management, overcrowded public transport and limited access to formal health care facilities.
They are asking for financial and material support to save the lives of those affected, across the country’s 26 dioceses.
Dry food and non-food items can be donated through “parishes, diocesan and national offices and other Church institutions,” they say.
On April 25, a team of officers and workers from the Justice and Peace Commission of Bishops as well as the Caritas Office of the Archdiocese of Nairobi visited Nairobi’s Kimbra slums, where they distributed assorted items to the poor families.
Each recipient was given a package containing 8kg of maize flour, 6kg of wheat flour, 2kg of sugar, 2kg of green grams (sometimes known as mung beans), three litres of cooking oil, two bars of soap for hand washing, 250ml of sanitiser and face masks.
Archbishop Anthony Muheria of Nyeri Archdiocese, in Kenya’s central region, told the Herald that he planned to raise a total of 120m Kenyan shillings (about $1.2m) for his feeding programme that will cater for a total of 10,000 families, mostly Christians. It will be raised “purely on the local level”, he said.
The hunger crisis has come alongside other challenges, among them violence and violation of human rights. In their statement, the bishops expressed “disbelief” at reports of how security forces had imposed the lockdown with “brutality and harassment”. The bishops “witnessed with shock vulnerable members of the society such as women, children and also some critical actors such as journalists and food suppliers being equally harassed by security officers”.
The London-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) observed that at least six people died from police violence during the first 10 days of Kenya’s dusk-to-dawn curfew, imposed on March 27, 2020. “The police, without apparent justification, shot and beat people at markets or returning home from work, even before the daily start of the curfew,” HRW reported. “Police have also broken into homes and shops, extorted money from residents or looted food in locations across the country.”
On March 30, following criticism from various groups over abuses in Mombasa, President Uhuru Kenyatta apologised about the police use of force, but did not instruct them to end the abuses.
“It is shocking that people are losing their lives and livelihoods while supposedly being protected from infection,” said Otsieno Namwaya, senior Africa researcher at HRW. “Police brutality isn’t just unlawful; it is also counterproductive in fighting the spread of the virus.”