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What does the end of the COVID emergency mean to you? Here's what Kenyans told us

Journalist Thomas Bwire asked these Kenyans how the pandemic has changed their lives. Top row from left: Abdala Hamadi, Judith Shitabule and Innocent Agwenyi. Bottow row from left: Phillister Atieno, Father Ignacio Flores Garcia and Valary Judith Atieno.
Thomas Bwire for NPR
Journalist Thomas Bwire asked these Kenyans how the pandemic has changed their lives. Top row from left: Abdala Hamadi, Judith Shitabule and Innocent Agwenyi. Bottow row from left: Phillister Atieno, Father Ignacio Flores Garcia and Valary Judith Atieno.

We sent journalist Thomas Bwire to interview residents of Kibera, often referred to as the biggest slum in Africa and home to an estimated 800,000 people and neighboring communities. In Kibera, signs of poverty are visible – like the many potholes and the gutters by the side of the main dirt roads, with water and sewage running down them. Many of the small homes have mud walls while some are crafted from sheet metal. They typically don't have electricity or running water.

But it's also a vibrant neighborhood, abuzz with Afrobeat music blasting from big black speakers hooked up to radios in the shops. People shop for meat (hanging in the windows of butcheries), produce, electronics, and food cooked up on the spot.

Bwire asked people what they think of the news that on Friday, WHO declared the public health emergency of COVID-19 is officially over. They were unaware of the pronouncement – but once they found out they had strong opinions.

Abdala Hamadi, 71, was shocked to hear the news of the WHO announcement. "Most people on the ground don't even have that information," he says with a smile. "I am now informed." But the news is not going to change his behavior. He says he will continue taking measures to protect his health: "Considering my age, I would not want to risk going to places that have crowds."

Abdala Hamadi lost his job as a waiter during the pandemic and now sells used books and clothes at a stall in the Kibera market. "Most people on the ground don't even have that information," he says of the WHO pronouncement that the COVID emergency has ended. "I am now informed."
/ Thomas Bwire for NPR
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Thomas Bwire for NPR
Abdala Hamadi lost his job as a waiter during the pandemic and now sells used books and clothes at a stall in the Kibera market. "Most people on the ground don't even have that information," he says of the WHO pronouncement that the COVID emergency has ended. "I am now informed."

He wishes the Kenyan media would do a better job enlightening the public about the WHO announcement.

Judith Shitabule, 44, was happy to hear the news. She has been a community health worker since 2007, paid a stipend for visiting households, identifying people sick with diseases like cholera and typhoid and referring them to the nearest health facility, and teaching expectant mothers about prenatal and postnatal care.

During the pandemic, Judith Shitabule earned the nickname "community ambulance" as she hurried from home to home to offer health-care advice to expectant mothers and others.
/ Thomas Bwire for NPR
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Thomas Bwire for NPR
During the pandemic, Judith Shitabule earned the nickname "community ambulance" as she hurried from home to home to offer health-care advice to expectant mothers and others.

"To me, I can say it is a good announcement indeed as it will finally open avenues where people can interact freely."

She recalls how many pregnant women were afraid to visit a health facility for prenatal care during the pandemic lest they contract COVID and possibly die — or test positive for the virus and face quarantine.

She convinced about 25 of these mothers to overcome their fears — and earned the nickname "community ambulance" because she rushed from family to family.

She also spoke to women and girls about the issue of sexual abuse – a problem during the pandemic when families were often confined to their home during lockdowns – and referred people to the authorities for help.

"WHO has now instilled in us some level of courage to say that we have overcome the virus, though it may not be fully," she says. "But we trust in their announcement."

Innocent Agwenyi is a sugarcane vendor who now attends church services by watching TV.
/ Thomas Bwire for NPR
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Thomas Bwire for NPR
Innocent Agwenyi is a sugarcane vendor who now attends church services by watching TV.

Then there are the skeptics, like Innocent Agwenyi, a 67-year-old man from Kawangware. He is self-employed and sells sugarcane from his wheelbarrow, which he pushes to different spots in Kibera.

He is in shock that WHO has made such an announcement: "On what basis are they measuring to now confirm that COVID-19 is out of the danger zone?" he asks.

Agwenyi is not well-off but like some Kibera residents, he has a small home in the country, side where he grows sugarcane as well as bananas and green vegetables. That's where he headed during the pandemic.

"It was such a refreshing moment, unlike the people who were left in the city. The only thing that I feared was the police curfew and people being beaten if found outside your house past 7 p.m.," says Agwenyi. He's referring to reports in the media and compiled by Human Rights Watch, that the police beat curfew violators early in the country's lockdown, killing several people.

Phillisters Atieno and her husband both lost their jobs during the pandemic. She was later rehired — at a lower wage.
/ Thomas Bwire for NPR
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Thomas Bwire for NPR
Phillisters Atieno and her husband both lost their jobs during the pandemic. She was later rehired — at a lower wage.

"The announcement by the World Health Organization is a welcome move," says Phillister Atieno, who's 60. The pandemic took a toll on her family: One relative lost a son to COVID-19 in May 2020. She sadly remembers that "on the burial day, we were all forced to watch from a distance as the Ministry of Health officials handled the entire process."

Her family had a tough time financially. She lost her job as a cleaner in a local church. Her husband, who'd retired from teaching school, had been doing bookkeeping for construction firms but lost that job as well. To survive, she sold vegetables and he tutored kids for about 35 cents a class. Initially they got send-off packages of food from their workplaces but weren't able to obtain the food donations for lower income families from the government or from well-wishers.

However, good tidings came their way in January 2021 when Atieno got her job back – although at a lower wage than before the pandemic. Her husband is still looking for work but does some carpentry to add to the family's income.

Lessons that she has picked up and still follows to the letter: She keeps a jerry can of clean water outside her door and washes her hands without fail each time she comes into the house.

Stanley Ngugi buys supplies of maize to sell in Kibera. During the pandemic, his income dried up. "There were many of us who slept hungry and with zero support from the government then," he recalls.
/ Thomas Bwire for NPR
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Thomas Bwire for NPR
Stanley Ngugi buys supplies of maize to sell in Kibera. During the pandemic, his income dried up. "There were many of us who slept hungry and with zero support from the government then," he recalls.

Stanley Ngugi, 48, is happy to hear that the threat of the pandemic has lessened. "There were many of us who slept hungry and with zero support from the government then," he recalls.

He is grateful that the Ministry of Health issued alerts to keep people safe but frustrated at the impact: "I could not travel [to a big city market] to bring maize to the city to be able to earn a decent living. That took a toll on my income," says Ngugi.

Valary Judith Atieno is an Mpesa agent and also runs a boutique shop for ladies.
/ Thomas Bwire for NPR
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Thomas Bwire for NPR
Valary Judith Atieno is an Mpesa agent and also runs a boutique shop for ladies.

Valary Judith Atieno, 30, saw her income drop as hours were limited for her e-mobile money and beauty shop in Kibera. She worries that if another pandemic were to strike, people would resist precautions. "Like the simple task of wearing a mask, some people only wore it when they saw a police officer in the distance, forgetting it was about their health first not the fear of being arrested," says Atieno.

Cynthia Awour, 18, did not like wearing masks — even when failure to mask got her in trouble at school. She hopes to study sign language but worries that she lost almost a year of school due to lockdowns in Kenya.
/ Thomas Bwire for NPR
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Thomas Bwire for NPR
Cynthia Awour, 18, did not like wearing masks — even when failure to mask got her in trouble at school. She hopes to study sign language but worries that she lost almost a year of school due to lockdowns in Kenya.

Cynthia Awour, an 18-year-old from the middle-class neighborhood of Langata, admits to falling down on the mask front. "I did not like wearing a mask and this got me into trouble one day, Even at school I used to be punished by the teachers.

She was unhappy about the many months off from school due to pandemic closures: "I stayed indoors for a year and felt like serving a jail term," says Awour. Due to the loss of schooling for some nine months, she says, "I feel my life goals were derailed a bit" – she hopes to study sign language for a future career.

As she reflects on the end of the state of emergency, she notes that she has changed the way she interacts with friends. Instead of hugging and shaking hands, she just waves with her right hand or clasps her hands and bows as a sign of respect.

Religious institutions were affected as well as schools.

Father Ignacio Flores Garcia, a Mexican Catholic priest based in Nairobi, saw donations to his church drop as services were off limits due to pandemic restrictions. He himself caught COVID-19 and is grateful for the loving care shown by health professionals.
/ Thomas Bwire for NPR
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Thomas Bwire for NPR
Father Ignacio Flores Garcia, a Mexican Catholic priest based in Nairobi, saw donations to his church drop as services were off limits due to pandemic restrictions. He himself caught COVID-19 and is grateful for the loving care shown by health professionals.

Father Ignacio Flores Garcia, a Mexican priest, is based at Guadalupe Parish. His church serves parishioners across Nairobi, including in Kibera. He welcomes the WHO announcement – and notes that the majority of people he interacts with on a daily basis seem to be forgetting fast about the global pandemic that brought life to a grinding halt.

Yet his church still feels the impact. During the periods when public gatherings were off limits, donations dropped significantly and the church had to lay off some of its staff. To supplement the church income, it now charges for parking space within the compound during the weekdays.

"I also got infected by COVID-19 and that got me really scared. I was admitted to a hospital. But by the end of the day, I appreciate the work of health-care personnel. They did all they could to support me emotionally through treatment."

Note: Data from the World Health Organization as of May 10 shows that Kenya had 343,073 confirmed cases of COVID-19 with 5,688 deaths.

Your turn: Tell us what the end of the COVID public health emergency means to you

Are you thrilled? Skeptical? Still mourning losses? Stopping all precautions or incorporating some into your daily life? Or maybe you've made changes in your life that you find meaningful. Email us at goatsandsoda@npr.org with the subject line "Emergency lifted" and we may feature your strategy on NPR.org. Please include your name and location. Submissions close on Friday, May 19.

Thomas Bwire is a co-founder and editor at Habari Kibra, a news hub that focuses on reporting stories from the Kibera community. He previously worked as a radio journalist at Pamoja FM, a community-based radio station in Kibera. His NPR story on an urban farmer in Nairobi who gave away food to those in need was the winner in the Agriculture and Food Security Category, digital, in the 11th Annual Journalism Excellent Awards presented this month by the Media Council of Kenya.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Thomas Bwire