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Inequality, Covid-19, and Humanitarian “Ubuntu”

The rise in inequality and extreme poverty has affected large numbers of countries, from the poorest to the most affluent, during the past two decades. Inequality in this paper, is a condition of hierarchical differentiation based on the way people are ranked in terms of income, wealth, gender, status and ability to exercise power and other attributes.[1] Inequality raises many ethical questions that lead to dehumanization and disrespect of life pushing more people into extreme poverty.

Inequality and extreme poverty are conditions partly created, and perpetuated by acts and omissions by states through unjust and marginalizing structures that violate human dignity of the people.[2] The authorities fail to take the necessary steps for policy and norms for all people to enjoy common resources. The distributive social injustice is observed when shared prosperity such as job opportunities, education, healthcare, social and capital government services are disproportionately allocated neglecting people at the lower end of the socio-economic scale. Institutionalized inequality leads to violations of human rights, stereotyping and stigmatisation.  Such people lack adequate income surviving on a dollar a day, experience paucity of basic human needs like food, water, housing, health and education.

With the emergence of Coronavirus Pandemic, poverty levels have globally risen in affluent countries and in various parts of Africa. In Kenya, the pandemic has not only exposed the poverty levels and inequality but has also increased its manifestations. Although the virus itself may not discriminate between the rich and the poor and has been referred to as an equalizer,[3] however, the conditions that increase susceptibility to the virus is greater among the less fortunate than the rich creating novel challenges in its management.

Immediately Kenya confirmed its first Covid-19 case on the 12th March 2020, it announced several restrictive measures in a bid to curb the spread of the disease. These measures included among others frequent washing of hands, social/physical distancing, imposed quarantines, curfews, immediate closure of schools and colleges and wearing of masks. These measures became the new norm and were mandatory. However, the new norm was not normal to all as these measures only divulged the great gap between the rich and poor in the face of a threatening pandemic.

While frequent washing of hands is paramount to keeping the virus at bay, lack of piped water for majority rural and those in informal settlements made it unfeasible. The measure for social/physical distancing assumes that residents have adequate space, services and social safety nets to survive such an order. This is simply not the reality among Kenyans in the slums who live in dense neighborhoods with unreliable shared points of access to basic services like water and sanitation. The risk of infection is higher and is seen to vary depending on where you live. The household of seven persons living in ten by ten feet room in the rural or in the urban slums renders distancing and self-quarantine impractical to achieve. Intrinsically, the disease threatens densely populated urban poor because of overcrowded housing.

The International Monetary Fund study asserts that the pandemic’s economic impact on the poor is “way worse” than that of the global financial crisis from 2008 to 2009.[4] Similarly, the Oxfam, King’s College London studies shows that the current pandemic’s economic impact could push half a billion people into poverty.[5] The economic impacts of the pandemic have been unevenly felt within Kenya. People living from hand to mouth have been hardest hit by the loss of jobs and sources of income. Food insecurity is at an all-time high, and without support from the government, many families are unable to buy food during the crisis.

Measures to close schools and colleges countrywide by the ministry of education was followed by guidelines of online learning on television, radio and mobile phones for learners.  While such learning may take place in urban areas of the wealthy populations where there is electricity, internet access and parents can afford to pay for the data bundles, conversely, for many children in the marginalized rural areas and the informal settlements, learning online through education technology applications remain out of reach for many consequently excluding such children from learning in the new norm approach. Additionally, smartphones are beyond the reach of most rural communities. Even where electricity and technology does exist, the cost of the internet for many in Kenya is high.

As is depicted above, the measures to curb Covid-19 in Kenya precipitated a humanitarian crisis of great proportions among the poor as people lost their jobs, were faced with hunger, lacked adequate face masks, sanitizers among others. Faced with all these challenges the ‘Humanitarian Ubuntu’ by Kenyans became apparent. Humanitarian Ubuntu, an African moral philosophy of “I am because we are and since I am therefore we are”[6]– draws on the fact that we are one human family recognising the humanity of one another in their pain, suffering and in joy stressing the values of human respect, collectivism, social cohesion, hospitality, cooperation, love, generosity, reciprocity, and reverence for the elderly inter alia. It is a code of behaviour and an attitude to people and life for solidarity and peace in society.[7]

The pandemic has triggered Humanitarian Ubuntu like a blessing in disguise. It has brought out the best in people in many ways. Some of the rich, the middle class and even those who have little have been seen sharing what they have with the less fortunate. Concerns reflecting humanitarian Ubuntu began to appear in the slums, the villages and the urban centres. The people mobilized relief services of outpouring assistance from their own resources carrying out acts of kindness and generosity to mitigate the crisis by providing food to the poor in the villages, the elderly and to the informal settlements. They also provided sanitizers, soap, water tanks and water at strategic points for people to wash their hands near their homes and at the market centres, giving out face masks, downloading learning materials for leaners who cannot access internet, making personal protective equipment for street children from local materials and giving them free to the vulnerable to minimize exposure to Covid-19 and on the whole to mitigate the humanitarian crisis.

Moreover, cases of landlords giving rent relief to their tenants of between one to three months, some reduced rental prices to cushion renters who lost jobs during the crisis. The religious groups are also on the ground providing the same assistance led by the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops and other individual religious institutions.

Correspondingly, the youth are educating the populations on the disease and what to do to keep safe. They educate creating awareness from door to door in the slums, through art, audios and videos. The Humanitarian Ubuntu witnessed during this pandemic is not enough and assistance is still needed in bulk, however, it is reawakening the consciences of all people on the responsibility we have to protect and respect human dignity beyond what the government can do and to eradicate extreme poverty and the social ills of inequality.

Recognizing and addressing the stark reality of inequality is essential for addressing the current and future pandemics. Kenyans will make progress when every citizen is valued, their human rights respected and when all have a chance to better living standards as the basis of development and economic growth. Failure to address inequalities means that human dignity remains vulnerable to social injustices, pandemics, political and economic upheavals. Post-Covid-19, policies should aim to shift resources to the poor ensuring that the poorest segments of the population are able to overcome their disadvantages. Therefore, the main means for overcoming inequity lie with state institutions that operate in the interests of the general public and with all of us in humanitarian Ubuntu not only during crisis but at all times.

  1. James Midgley, Social protection and Social Justice, Edward Elgar Cheltenham, 2020 page 13.
  2. Franciscans International, Making Rights Work for People Living in Extreme Poverty. accessed 15 May 2020.
  3. Magesa L. “An Alternate View on the COVID-19 Pandemic” in the May First 2020,, accessed 15th May 2020.
  4. Stephanie Nebehay, IMF sees coronavirus-induced global downturn ‘way worse’ than 2008 financial crisis, accessed May 19th
  5. Ibid
  6. Ibid
  7. John Mbiti, African Religions and Philosophy. Heinemann, Oxford, 1990.
  8. Christian Gade, A Discourse on African Philosophy, Lexington Books-London, 1992, Page 13.