By Nita Bhalla
NAIROBI – Thousands of Kenyans in Nairobi are at risk of contracting the new coronavirus after authorities demolished their houses in the midst of the pandemic, human rights activists have said.
Authorities ordered bulldozers into the Kariobangi informal settlement in northeast Nairobi recently, demolishing some 600 homes and forcefully evicting at least 5,000 people – including many single mothers and children, said campaigners.
The state-run Nairobi City Water and Sewerage Company (NSWSC) claims ownership of the land which it says has been illegally occupied since 2008. Evicted residents say they bought the land from the city council and have documents to prove it.
“We are in a serious crisis because of the COVID-19 pandemic so evicting people from their homes and their only place of safety at this moment is wrong,” said Ruth Mumbi, coordinator of the Grassroots Women Initiative Network (GRAWINET).
“The government is talking about ‘flattening the curve’ and ‘slowing the spread’ of the virus, but at the same time it is compromising the lives of 5,000 people. God forbid, if there is an outbreak of COVID-19 in this locality, no one will be safe.”
Residents were given verbal notice of the demolition, said Mumbi. Rights groups secured a court injunction stopping the demolition the following day, but authorities proceeded with the forced evictions regardless, she added.
Kenya’s interior ministry, water ministry and NSWSC did not immediately respond to calls or emails requesting comment.
Around the world, homeless communities and residents in slums and informal settlements are particularly at risk of the virus, with limited access to water and overcrowding making hand-washing and social distancing an impossibility.
The East African nation has recorded more than 530 cases and over 20 deaths, and authorities have put in place tight restrictions on movement to reduce transmission rates.
Land is an explosive issue in Kenya, with unscrupulous developers and brokers often selling land with fraudulent title deeds to ignorant homeowners.
Mumbi said most of those evicted were daily wage earners such as cleaners, market sellers, motorbike taxi drivers and garbage collectors who had already lost work due to the COVID-19-linked restrictions and had paid rent for May.
Many families could not travel to their family homes in rural areas due to restrictions on movement and were sleeping out in the cold and rain, said Mumbi.
The demolitions sparked outrage on social media in Kenya, with users sharing pictures of bulldozers flattening corrugated iron shacks and residents searching amidst the mountains of rubble for their belongings.
“I was there on Monday. These people are poor. They are already hungry as they have no job due to COVID-19. Now you make them homeless also,” rights activist Boniface Mwangi told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“It’s self-defeatist. The government wants to stop the virus, but they are actually helping to spread it with actions like this. The land may be illegal, but to do the evictions now is inhumane.” – Thomas Reuters Foundation.