On the frontlines of COVID-19 prevention in Kenya

Elizabeth Oduor waves and smiles at almost everyone as she walks briskly in between mud-walled houses. She is a community health volunteer in Mathare, one of the about half a dozen informal settlements dotting Kenya’s capital of Nairobi.
Kevin Mwanza
Volunteers demonstrate how to wash hands

Diligent and attentive, Ms Oduor makes sure that the sick are taken care of properly. And her efforts to educate the community on the importance of proper sanitation and hygiene have made her a “neighbourhood darling” around the slum.

Old woman smiles after receiving a bucket for handwashing
Old woman smiles after receiving a bucket for handwashing

“This is one of the recipients of the handwashing buckets,” Ms Oduor says as she introduces Elda Sitati, an 85-year-old ailing widow. Ms Sitati has lived in Mathare since 1960 and has no one to take care of her after her eight children passed away over the years, according to Ms Oduor.

“We have to visit her and several others in this community to ensure that they are okay and they are getting the necessary treatment. We work with local health care centres to get the medication,” she said.

Ms Oduor describes herself as a foot soldier in an army of community health volunteers (CHVs) at the frontline of Kenya’s fight against COVID-19. They work throughout the informal settlements of Nairobi, sensitizing slum dwellers about the necessity of adhering to government public health regulations such as regular handwashing, wearing masks and social distancing. 

In Kenya, volunteers like Ms Oduor are assigned to 100 households each, or about 500 people, to ensure that no one is left behind. The advent of COVID-19 has refocused the attention of these frontline health workers on doing everything possible to prevent the spread of the pandemic to the most vulnerable: the urban poor and those living in rural areas, where health services are not easily accessible.

Community Health Volunteers at the frontlines of COVID prevention in Kenya
Community Health Volunteers at the frontlines of COVID prevention in Kenya. ©WSSCC/Kevin Mwanza

Not only do the CHVs sensitize on safety and preventive measures, but they also work to dispel myths and eliminate stigma around COVID-19.

“As CHVs, this has helped improve our voice in the community. We are now a force whenever we say something. It has helped in educating and sensitizing people in the slums,” said Judith Ndege, another CHV who works in the Mukuru Kayaba slum.

“We have distributed handwashing facilities, soap, water tanks, sanitizers and even food under COVID-19 programs,” added Ms Ndege.

WSSCC was one of the organizations providing supplies as part of the COVID-19 response, working with the Ministry of Health and in partnership with local administrations. This included the distribution of sanitary supplies in the informal settlement of Mukuru in May.

Volunteers distributing masks and hand sanitizers
Volunteers distributing masks and hand sanitizers ©WSSCC/Kevin Mwanza

“WSSCC has been a leading partner in sanitation and hygiene globally, and we are pleased they came in very handy to support the activities of COVID-19 pandemic in Kenya,” said Tobias Omufwoko, CEO WASH Alliance Kenya (WAK).

“We want to see more and more of this done post-COVID-19. CHVs need support to target the vulnerable and ensure we bring everybody on board,” he said.

The program worked with CHVs, through the Ministry of Health, together with community-based organizations to supply hand-washing buckets to the most vulnerable families, distributed hand-washing station in public spaces, and constructed water tanks serviced by the Nairobi Water and Sewerage Company.

An estimated 190,000 Africans could die if containment measures such as contact tracing, isolation, personal hygiene and distancing are not improved, the World Health Organization warned.

Community listen attentively to awareness on COVID-19 prevention
Community listen attentively to awareness on COVID-19 prevention. ©WSSCC/Kevin Mwanza

Many of these fatalities would likely be vulnerable persons who cannot afford simple hygiene measure such as hand-washing or access to proper medical care, according to Alex Manyasi, WSSCC Country Coordinator.

Only about 14 percent of Kenyans have the facilities for washing their hands at home with soap and water, according to the United Nations.

According to data from Kenya's Ministry of Health, as of 9 September 2020, there were 35,460 confirmed coronavirus cases in Kenya, 607 deaths and 21,557 recoveries out of 481,982 tests done since March. More than half of confirmed cases are in Nairobi.