Local journalists help flatten COVID-19 curve in Africa’s refugee camps

South Sudanese refugees practice social distancing as they wait to access a food distribution at Kakuma camp in Kenya. © UNHCR/Samuel Otieno
South Sudanese refugees practice social distancing as they wait to access a food distribution at Kakuma camp in Kenya. © UNHCR/Samuel Otieno

“Refugees both in Kakuma and Kalobeyei are panicking due to news of the pandemic… health facilities are poor & few doctors,” KANERE (short for the Kakuma News Reflector) posted in its most recent online edition.  

The refugee-run KANERE news outlet has been on the coronavirus beat; informing and educating refugees in Kakuma camp on how to stay safe amid the pandemic since Kenya reported its first COVID-19 case on March 13.

KANERE is the first independent, refugee-run news outlet to operate from Kakuma refugee camp. It provides news to over 180,000 of the camp’s residents. Now, as Kenya’s number of COVID-19 cases steadily climbs into the hundreds, Kanere’s journalists have been working to educate their community on how to stay safe. 

“At KANERE, we are the refugee voice in Kakuma and around Kenya. Our posts on Twitter and Facebook are trying to tell people how to prevent the spread of such viruses and how people can try to exercise and practise safe distancing from each other,” Qaabata Boru, editor of KANERE news, told CGTN.

Boru is originally from Ethiopia and lived in Kakuma for four years. He is now resettled in Canada, where he remotely works with a team of Ethiopian, Congolese, Ugandan, Rwandan, Somali, Sudanese, and Kenyan journalists and editors based in Kakuma camp.

Alongside frequently posting on its social media platforms, the news outlet also prints COVID-19 information and safety precautions on posters to distribute around the camp. “COVID is real, wash your hands, don’t touch your face,” in multiple languages for the camp’s diverse community.  

 “As media we are informing the people because information is powerful,” Boru says. 

Social distancing in a refugee camp? 

East Africa and The Horn of Africa are home to millions of refugees and internally displaced people, mainly from South Sudan, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Uganda, Tanzania, and Kenya alone host over two million refugees, many of whom have been forced to flee violent conflict and food insecurity.  

As the rapidly spreading virus gains ground across Africa, experts paint a devastating picture of what a coronavirus outbreak would look like in the region’s sprawling refugee camps, where health care systems are already fragile and hundreds of thousands of people live in close confinement. 

To help prevent the spread of the virus, the World Health Organisation recommends regularly washing hands with soap and water and practising social distancing. But for refugees living in tightly-packed homes with no access to running water, basic protective measures like social distancing and regular hand washing are simply not realistic. 

“Refugees are living in close quarters, they cannot exercise safe physical distance when they are collecting water or rations. There are so many risks,” Qaabata Boru, editor of KANERE news, told CGTN.  

“The infrastructure and the system is designed in a way that cannot cater to such a phenomenon. The camp governors should rethink how they can help people to practise safe social distancing when the system brings people together.”  

Grassroots movements

Grassroots organisations like KANERE have come to characterise the fight against COVID-19 in refugee camps and informal settlements around Kenya and the region, acting as a powerful tool in helping to inform and educate some of society’s most vulnerable. 

According to Boru, close community ties and an insider’s perspective are critical to building trust and teaching people how to fight the virus in dense and poorly serviced refugee camps.  

“At KANERE we are working in collaboration with community leaders so people trust us. They give us tips on information and the coverage that they would like us to do,” Boru explains. 

UN agencies and NGOs seem to agree, and many have been working closely with networks of community volunteers to help identify COVID-19 cases among their community. 

“It’s absolutely crucial that we have refugees and people at a grassroots level,” Dana Hughes, the UN Refugee Agency’s (UNHCR) Spokesperson for the East and Horn of Africa told CGTN.

“In any community people are more likely to trust the people they know, to trust the elders in their community, their own mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers. So when you are dealing with a pandemic, having refugees involved is crucial and key to preventing and care and treatment should there be an outbreak.”  

Such lessons were learnt during the Ebola outbreak, where the role of community leaders have been essential in tackling the spread of misinformation. And it remains pertinent at the time of COVID-19, where the virus can be spread rapidly and human-to-human contact is discouraged. 

With borders shutting down and the movement of people becoming increasingly precarious, limiting international staff while relying on local community workers has become key to protecting refugees on the ground. “As part of our prevention and mitigation measures we do not necessarily want lots of international staff wandering around the camps right now,” Hughes explains. “We are there, we are finding other ways to deliver services, but we are really relying on those who are grassroots.”    

Preventative measures 

Alongside engagement with grassroots actors, governments and NGOs have been working to adapt to the changing environment and its unprecedented restrictions. 

As with most parts of the world, basic social distancing measures have been put in place in refugee camps and according to Hughes, Kenya’s national plans of testing and curfews apply to the refugees in camps like Kakuma as they do to the rest of the country. 

In a similar vein, schools and livelihoods programmes in the camps have shut down and alternatives are being employed to keep daily life flowing as normally as possible. For example, the Norwiegan Refugee Council (NRC) is now exploring ways to run classes over the radio, after being forced to close down education and livelihood programmes running in the camps, according to NRC’s Regional Advocacy Advisor Jeremy Taylor.  

“Education is key”, Taylor says. “Alongside this comes sensitisation and information sharing. We are looking at creative means of getting the message out on how COVID is spread and what people can do to protect themselves.”

NGOs across the region are also increasing the quantities of food and other basic items given to refugees. It is hoped the increased quantity not only reduces the frequency of distributions but reduces large crowds and queues that violate physical distancing guidelines. Additionally, UNHCR has been working with the Ministry of Health and local governments to identify isolation wards and equip them with beds, “making sure that they would have the same kind of health care access that citizens of the country have,” according to Hughes. 

Yet for Qabaata Boru and his fellow journalists, the question remains how much support KANERE and other community based organisations will receive as they work to protect their community.  With limited resources, there is only so much that the Kakuma News Reflector can do. 

“Our work is crucial, but we need more resources to be able to articulate issues in a more community based way.” Boru said. “The larger community still lacks the information. They don’t have knowledge about how dangerous the virus is.”