Covid-19 exposes gulf between the rich and poor

Ford Foundation facilitates a discussion on the state of Kenya's economy, in Nairobi on January 29, 2020. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

What you need to know:

  • A majority of residents who supply a big chunk of the workforce in Nairobi’s service industry have been out of work for two weeks now.
  • The closure of markets in the North Rift and Kiambu has greatly disrupted the food supply chain in Nairobi.

Dressed in a bright green T-shirt and dark sunglasses, Central Organisation of Trade Unions (Cotu) boss Francis Atwoli slumped in a chair as his head nodded to Congolese rhumba musician Sarah Solo, who was seated next to him, singing.

A camera that was initially fixed on the flamboyant Cotu secretary-general being privately entertained as he drinks tea panned to show Mr Atwoli’s expansive home as the guitar strummed and sweet rhumba music wafted the air.

“Quarantine goals! Swear this is me when I hit Atwoli’s age,” popular comedian Felix Odiwour, also known as Jalango, posted on his Instagram page, attaching the video that has since gone viral.

That Mr Atwoli is a huge rhumba fan is not in doubt. Several Labour Day celebrations have been graced by rhumba bands and dancers.

To mark his 70th birthday in June last year, Congolese artists Evala Mbuta and Nyboma released the song “Atwoli Mwana Zambe” in his praise.

Initially thought to be an equaliser between the rich and the poor, the coronavirus has exposed the deep-rooted inequality in Kenya.


As the rich, the middle-class and a majority of those in white-collar jobs take much needed leaves or are given the option to work from home to slow down the spread of the virus, the poor do not have such privileges.

At worst, those in formal jobs have been asked to take pay cuts or unpaid leave. Kenya Airways, Royal Media Services, Standard Group, Radio Africa and even the government are some of the entities that have asked some or all of their employees to take pay cuts.

For the poor, however, the coronavirus is taking away the only thing they had that gave them dignity — a job.

And in a country where the poor have to work every day to put food on the table and afford a roof over their heads, Covid 19 is hitting them harder.

And unlike the rich, the poor have nowhere to hide. In the low income residential neighbourhoods in urban centres where the poor live, social isolation, which is a great deterrent in the spread of the coronavirus, is an alien idea.

The residential units are so small and close to each other that people have to interact to survive.


Bathrooms, toilets, balconies, cloth hanging lines, staircases and in some places kitchens are all public utilities shared by different families at a time.

Worse still, the shop assistants, market traders, taxi operators, matatu drivers, conductors, street vendors, cleaners, barbers, beauticians, househelps, gardeners, barbers, shoe polishers, loaders, factory workers and jua kali artisans who live in these areas have to be present at work to earn a living.

Almost all of them depend on daily wages and have no job security.

Already, nightclub bouncers, waiters, DJs, event organisers and a majority of those in the hospitality sector are out of work after the government ordered bars shut and restaurants to offer only takeaway service.

“It is fine; we need to quarantine but there is no way I can stay at home. There are many things that could have killed me in the last 30 years but haven’t,” says Shadrack Ombasa, a resident of Kawangware, Nairobi, who lost his job as a waiter and does menial jobs for a living.

In neighbouring Kibera, the roadside vegetable and food stands are increasingly becoming empty due to a diminishing supply of money in the slum.


A majority of residents who supply a big chunk of the workforce in Nairobi’s service industry and factories have been out of work for two weeks now.

“Things have been really difficult. People are not buying and when they want, the supply is not there,” says Victoria Adede, who sources vegetables and sells them in the slum.

Most of the fresh produce that feeds Kibera comes from Nairobi’s largest markets, Wakulima and Gikomba.

Although the two markets in the capital are still open, their supply chains are increasingly drying up, according to a spot check by the Nation.

Nairobi predominantly depends on the counties of Kiambu, Nyandarua and those from the North Rift for its food supply.

Kiambu has already ordered its markets closed. Last week eight counties under the North Rift Economic Bloc followed suit and agreed to enforce joint measures to be more effective in stopping the coronavirus.

“We need a joint approach as counties and as a country because if we act as one, we will be able to deal with this situation and return to normalcy,” said Nandi Governor Stephen Sang.


But even before the resolutions of the eight governors were adopted, Uasin Gishu’s Jackson Mandago had made his own initiatives, like ordering the closure of open-air markets in Eldoret.

The closure of markets in the North Rift and Kiambu has greatly disrupted the food supply chain in Nairobi.

Prices of fresh produce are already starting to go up. But the ripple effects of market closures across the country cut very deep.

These closures have come at a huge price to the people who depend on them.

On Monday, Idris Mukulwe, 25, lost his life when he reportedly suffocated after a teargas canister was lobbed into a room he had run into seeking refuge from police wrath, during a confrontation with traders at Mumias market.

“Preliminary investigations show that the victim died from suffocation,” said Mumias West Sub-County Commander Paul Korir.

And when such markets close, the middle class and the rich have the option of buying food from formal stores like supermarkets.

But the poor - who depend on food that must pass through open-air markets before finding its way to their plates - are finding it hard.