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‘Starve or get sick’: Africa’s coronavirus lockdown dilemma

AFP Africa bureaus

Nairobi (AFP) – 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 teargas and men with sticks beat the hungry.

As African countries grapple with the coronavirus pandemic, observers warn that the traumatic scenes which played out last Friday will 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 coronavirus, but in terms of hunger,” said Kennedy Odede, who runs Shining Hope For Communities (SHOFCO), a grassroots movement which works in the Nairobi slum Kibera and other informal settlements in Kenya.

“If it continues like this, we might be playing with fire.”

Kenya has so far cordoned off the capital and parts of its coastline and imposed a night-time curfew and other social distancing measures.

Many of these restrictions are having a wrenching impact, causing loss of jobs among the poor, said Odede.

While President Uhuru Kenyatta has wielded the threat of a full lockdown to get citizens to comply with the rules, officials admit it is an agonising 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 told AFP on condition of anonymity.

– ‘Unenforceable and unsustainable’ –

The coronavirus arrived late in Africa, but is slowly taking hold with over 15,000 cases and 800 deaths across the continent.

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.