Kenyan slum’s Dharavi-like fight against Covid-19

Brian de Souza | Updated on October 09, 2020

Home run: Doctors go door-to-door in Dharavi to screen residents for Covid-19   -  SHIVKUMAR UTTURE

Mumbai’s Dharavi and Kibera in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, share many similar challenges, as also the resolve to beat Covid-19 from their dangerously congested living spaces

Kibera and Dharavi — two of the world’s largest shanty towns — are about 4,500km apart. With tens of thousands of people crammed into one-room homes, these sprawling urban settlements are battling the spread of Covid-19.

Last summer, Moses Njule, a Kenyan guide, gave me a tour of Kibera in suburban Nairobi, where his home is located. Apart from a walk through the main settlement, we visited a non-governmental organisation run by women who have recovered from HIV.

I am reminded of Kibera as I read about the massive exercise underway to contain the novel coronavirus in the Mumbai slum. Njule is part of Kijiweni, a local self-help group educating people in Kibera on ways to stay safe.

While some international reports have been stating that Kibera has been successful in flattening the curve, Njule, however, estimates there are hundreds of cases, and rising.

“I do my own research,” Njule, who has a diploma in community development, tells me over the phone from his home in Kibera.

Covid-19, he says, has added to the woes of Kibera’s quarter million residents. Instances of drug use and suicides are rising. Those with HIV and compromised immune systems are struggling to survive.

To guard against the pandemic, local artists were roped in to draw safety messages in Nairobi’s Kibera township   -  MOSES NJULE


But there has been no let-up in the efforts to fight the virus.

Washing one’s hands is the first step in the war against Covid-19. But water and electricity are scarce in Kibera. So Kijiweni has set up water stations with donations from well-wishers to enable people to wash hands.

Voluntary testing facilities are limited to the main Kibera roads, leaving inner areas untested. Kijiweni — Swahili for stone — is spreading awareness about the infection through street plays, dances, and getting local artists to draw safety messages on Kibera’s walls.

As Njule talks to the people, he realises that misconceptions about Covid-19 are widely prevalent, including the belief that it is a Western disease. One resident told him, “We look silly and stupid with face masks, which cause heat and prevent oxygen from reaching the brain.” He wanted food and job compensation, instead, he said.

The challenges were no different in Dharavi, which is believed to have largely brought the infection under control.

Kiran Dighavkar, Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation’s assistant commissioner who spearheaded the Mission Dharavi campaign to safeguard the locality against the pandemic, says a line had to be drawn between the lockdown and people’s needs.

People have to leave their homes for meals or to use the community toilets — a total of at least four trips a day, he points out.

“We knew that neither social distancing nor home quarantine would be effective. So we got community toilets sanitised and turned schools and hotels nearby into quarantine centres. Free food and medicine were given out as that was what the jobless migrants required.”

Four basic steps were vital to Mission Dharavi, Dighavkar explains — trace, track, test and treat. “We told the people categorically that if they isolated themselves, they and their families would be protected,” he says.

Like Kiberians, Dighavkar says, Dharavi residents felt the disease was brought in by “those with passports”. So, working closely with Dharavi-based NGOs, the police and the local doctors’ association conducted door-to-door screening to dispel the belief that the pandemic wouldn’t affect the people there.

“Dharavi residents were pleasantly surprised to see us, and this gave them a sense of assurance and safety,” says Dr Anil Pachnekar, one of the senior doctors involved in the exercise.

Dharavi’s global reputation — earned largely through a clutch of books and films set in the shanty town — has brought in donations from corporate houses and Bollywood. Americares India, an NGO funded by US-based Maharashtrian NRIs, has contributed thermal scanners, PPE suits and other equipment for the campaign.

High-risk areas were cordoned off with local police support, and community leaders were tasked with ensuring that the toilets were sanitised and social distancing was followed at grocery shops. The message of safety was conveyed round the clock with the help of loudspeakers at key locations.

“Dharavi displayed atma-nirbharta (self-reliance), something that residents in Mumbai’s high-rises can take a page from,” says Dr Pachnekar. “When you make people — many of whom are not literate — aware of Covid-19 and answer their questions, they will follow your instructions,” he adds.

Stressing that these are unusual times, Dighavkar quotes the tagline for a soda ad as a message of hope: There is victory beyond fear.

The slogan behind Kijiweni’s campaign is not very different. Njule, who has not heard of Dharavi, says residents now spontaneously greet each other with elbow bumps, and encourage others to do the same.

“We try to spread the motto that ‘I am my brother’s keeper’ and, in time, together we will succeed,” he says.

Brian de Souza is a Mumbai-based communications specialist

Published on October 08, 2020

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