The fight against coronavirus has turned violent in Kenya as police officers enforcing a new curfew brutalize citizens. Nationwide fury was especially high in response to the death of a 13-year-old boy who, according to police, was hit by a stray bullet. Videos and testimonies have spread throughout social media showing hundreds choking on tear gas and individuals hit with batons in the street, as detailed in an Al-Jazeera report. At least three others have died at the hands of law enforcement in the first few days of the curfew, while only seven have died from complications related to COVID-19.
Human Rights Watch was quick to condemn the actions of Kenyan authorities. The organization claims that the violence is not only inhumane but that it undermines the main goal of the curfew. To intimidate and attack civilians, officers have been grouping them into crowds, which would potentially spread the virus.
James Colgrove, a public health professor at Columbia University, also advocates for the effectiveness of a benevolent response. In an interview with The New York Times, he says, “People want to do what’s best for themselves, and the way you get them to do what’s best is to tell them why they should do it and explain it to them. Nobody likes to be threatened.” Appealing to the sense of community and altruism among Kenyans would prove to be more effective than widespread police brutality.
Limits need to be placed on police officers, but this is a long-held, systematic problem that is not likely to be fixed during a global pandemic. The dawn-to-dusk curfew is reminiscent of preventative actions taken by other countries to curb the spread of the virus. Kenyans appear to be especially affected as the new rules are undermined by access to information and community routines.
Police brutality is focused mainly on the poorest areas of major cities. According to The Africa Report, new rules are imposed every day, which is confusing in communities where news used to be spread by word of mouth. This lack of clarity means more people are out at places and hours that have been forbidden and are therefore more likely to be caught and beaten by police.
Al-Jazeera also described the challenge of low-income communities to purchase essentials while following government guidelines. Open-air markets sell food and water that are often purchased before a long commute to and from the city. Social distancing and the curfew has meant many poor Kenyans are going hungry, exacerbating their frustrations. The response to coronavirus should take into account the way of life of Kenya’s most vulnerable citizens. They live in close quarters and many are essential workers, and altering guidelines to meet their needs would mean a more effective and humane coronavirus response.
Police brutality is a long-held and systemic issue in Kenya. Every few years, a major incident shakes the country, such as in 2018 when a young U.K.-based student was shot by police in Nairobi. Headlines appear around the world and actions are repeatedly condemned, but when fervor dies down, nothing is changed.
The Kenyan Human Rights Commission published an in-depth analysis of the roots of the problem, including structural problems within the police force and long waits for criminal trials. In such a frightening time, many countries are focusing on the well-being of their citizens and do not have the resources or energy to monitor injustices elsewhere.
Kenyans are afraid for their lives if they were to go out and protest. However, photos and videos of brutality continue to spread on social media, and the virtual campaign seems to be effective. For now, it is a safe way for citizens to express discontent and has prompted President Kenyatta to alter certain parts of his response, such as accepting a pay cut and giving the poor tax relief, as described in The Africa Report. If angry citizens continue on this campaign and word is spread both nationwide and worldwide, perhaps it will prompt the government to create a new coronavirus response that is tailor-made to Kenya rather than the current copy-paste policy.
In Kenya, there are 184 current cases of coronavirus. President Kenyatta has implemented many of the same policies as European leaders in an attempt to flatten the curve, but these actions have meant that poor communities without access to running water or fresh food are now struggling. The police have been given free rein to aggressively enforce these policies, making Kenyans choose between feeding their families or risking their safety.
Countries such as Kenya with deep institutional issues and widespread food insecurity need to reassess their coronavirus response. Clearer and considerate instructions will require less monitoring by police and hopefully will stop the spread of the virus while protecting the overall well-being of Kenyans.