Coronavirus: Social distancing a distant dream in Africa’s slums

Packed homes and shared facilities stoke fears in one Kampala slum of a devastating outbreak

As the western world practices “social distancing”, residents of the world’s slums grapple with the idea that they could be decimated by a coronavirus outbreak.

In Namuwongo, a slum area of Ugandan capital Kampala riven through by disused train tracks, residents are still flogging wares and gathering at a well to collect water, while children play and run around.

"People are many," says John Kungu, Namuwongo's local council chairman for the past 29 years, watching dozens of people walk by him in all directions. "People are congested, they're poor, they're looking for money. People are many and people are moving."

A few days before, he watched President Yoweri Museveni address the nation about Covid-19 and the importance of keeping apart from each other. Normally Kungu would hold a group meeting to tell locals about these developments, as many won't have seen the speech, but this time he's talking to individuals and hoping they'll pass the information on.


“We have to fear because it is very dangerous,” he says. “People don’t have anywhere else to go. These are their homes. They need to stay in their homes.”

Though the pandemic was slow to reach Africa, the World Health Organisation is now urging the continent to "prepare for the worst", with Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO's Ethiopian director general, saying African countries need to "wake up" to the threat of coronavirus.

Across Africa, there are more than 1,400 confirmed coronavirus cases. Uganda declared its first case on Saturday, while closing its borders and airports to everything except cargo planes and vehicles. In the capital, wealthy residents have been stockpiling food and medical supplies. In the north, three inmates were shot dead as they tried to escape from a prison, frightened of being infected with Covid-19, according to local media.

Roughly 21 per cent of Uganda’s population of more than 44 million are believed to be living under the poverty line.

"How are you supposed to wash your hands regularly if you have no running water or soap? How can you implement 'social distancing' if you live in a slum or a refugee camp? . . . How are those with pre-existing health conditions going to take extra precautions if they already can't afford or access the treatment they need?" asked Jonathan Whittall, head of humanitarian analysis for international medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), earlier this month.

“This pandemic will also disproportionately affect those who can’t stock up on food because they already can’t afford a meal every night of the week; those who are underpaid, overworked, and deprived of sick leave, or unable to work from home.”

Hand to mouth

Kampala has more than 1.7 million residents – a significant proportion of whom are living in city slums. Many moved there from rural areas in search of work and have ended up crammed together, living hand to mouth.

Many of their homes have no running water, meaning advice about regular hand washing is challenging to follow. Families of six, seven or eight often live packed into one room, making self-isolation impossible. Residents are weak from poor diets and have repeatedly faced outbreaks of cholera, measles and malaria. Toilets can be shared with hundreds of others.

With so much else to worry about, not everyone in Namuwongo is convinced of the dangers of Covid-19. Sam Katongole, a slim 45-year-old wearing a cap with a peace sign on it, bounds up proferring a hand, saying he’s not frightened. “My blood is strong,” boasts the construction worker. “TB: They checked me and I was clear. HIV: They checked me and I was clear.”

Instead, his biggest problem is “hunger because of no work”. Katongole’s family live five to one room. Each day, they collect two jerrycans of water from the well and use that to clean themselves and their home.

He’s still going out, looking for scarce employment, because he can’t imagine his rent payments being halted no matter how bad the outbreak gets. “Landlords can’t accept that,” he says.

For Taaka (36), a fish seller in Namuwongo market, business has also been disrupted. “The restrictions mean people don’t have money,” she says.

“Something that can kill you you have to fear,” adds 56-year-old Apiyo Rose, who shares the stall with Taaka.

Listening in, Rose's son, 25-year-old Simon Bless, argues that Uganda's workers need more protection. "In England if the football players don't play they pay them the money, what about me?" he asks.

‘Good businessman’

In a shelter nearby, Alan Kiseka (30) collects plastic bags and recycles them. He idolises Donald Trump – "a good businessman" – and is also convinced coronavirus can't hurt Ugandans medically. "Here in Uganda it can't damage us, we have strong blood. We eat vegetables, you eat cooking oils," he says.

However, fear of the outbreak is hurting his company. Businesses that supply Kiseka with plastic scraps have stopped handing them over, which means he can’t sell them on. Damage to his income and that of his workers is what he’s most afraid of, he says.

Sitting at a table outside, Mama Ojara (28), a tailor whose family live six in one room, says she doesn’t understand anything about how to prevent the virus. She couldn’t watch Museveni’s speech because she doesn’t have a television, and she has only seen two people wearing masks – “I don’t know where to buy them.”

Churches and religious gatherings may be banned for one month, but Ojara is turning to prayer at this time of uncertainty. “I pray to God that it doesn’t come here, that’s all I can do,” she says.