With tens of thousands displaced by heavy rains in western Kenya, following government guidelines to ward off COVID-19 is a major challenge
NAIROBI - John Otieno was caught unawares in late April when flood waters hit his home and farm in Kogelo village, western Kenya, swamping his buildings and poultry, and destroying six acres of maize.
"We woke up to massive floods in the morning from the Nyando River, and my entire farm and houses were swept away," said Otieno. "I only saved my two goats."
In Kenya's Western and Nyanza regions, heavy rainfall since March has displaced more than 100,000 people and devastated homes and crops.
At the same time, the government is fighting to contain the coronavirus outbreak at national and local levels, with measures like social distancing.
In the western part of the country, following such guidelines is nearly impossible for those forced from their homes by the rains and flooding, residents and aid workers said.
Otieno's family of six was among several evacuated from his village and is now sheltering in nearby Okanja primary school. There they are finding it hard to stay away from others to prevent the potential spread of COVID-19.
"We have stayed here for two weeks, and it is very challenging to maintain social distancing," Otieno told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.
Women and children sleep together in the school compound, while men spend the night in separate rooms.
The nearly 500 displaced people staying in local schools are trying to follow government guidelines to prevent COVID-19 infection, such as wearing face masks and sanitising hands, said Otieno.
"Well-wishers came and distributed some masks but there were not enough for all of us," he added, urging the Kisumu County government to supply masks and send medical officers to check on the situation regularly.
Families at the Okanja school are fortunate, however, because it has plenty of rainwater collected in tanks. Church and other local leaders have donated equipment, so they can easily wash their hands and keep good hygiene.
Kenya has so far recorded more than 580 cases of the virus, with 26 confirmed deaths. Most infections have occurred in cities like Nairobi and Mombasa, but community transmission is also happening in other parts of the country.
Health cabinet secretary Mutahi Kagwe said in early May that people should observe the virus containment protocols recommended by the government, particularly keeping a distance of at least 2 metres (6.6 feet) from others.
"If we don't adhere to the measures, the disease will spread very quickly within our communities," he added.
While the coronavirus outbreak threatens all Kenyans, the heavy rains and floods have made thousands of families more vulnerable to the virus, aid workers said.
Nearly 200 people have been killed by floods and landslides in Kenya this year - considerably more deaths than caused by the COVID-19 respiratory disease so far, government figures show.
According to Peter Abwao, a spokesman for the Kenya Red Cross, about 17,000 households, each with an average of six members, have been affected by floods, with 10,000 families left homeless in the western part of the country.
The aid agency has been working with the Kisumu County government to get those displaced by the floods relocated to more schools, so that if possible, each family has their own classroom, to be able to maintain social distancing.
MORE FLOODS DUE
May's weather forecast, from the Kenya Meteorological Department, predicted above-average rainfall during the first week of the month and near-average precipitation in the second half, with rains likely to continue into June.
Senior meteorologist Misiani Zachary warned further flooding was likely, especially in western areas that have already received lots of wet weather.
Zachary also said persistent rains could lead to huge cracks in roads and landslides, hampering relief for remote villages.
"The ongoing rains will absolutely create impassable roads for the rescue team of medics and other emergency assistance," he added.
Julius Otieno, a community liaison officer at the Nyando Constituency Development Fund who has been helping flood victims on the frontline, said thousands of acres of crops and rice plantations had been destroyed.
Meeting the basic needs of displaced people was difficult during a pandemic, he added, warning that other diseases like cholera and malaria could easily break out.
"As much as the government discourages people coming together in large numbers, we have no choice at the moment as this is an emergency," he said.
"Food is provided (in the shelters), so we are trying our best to ensure movements in and out of the schools are restricted."
On top of the flash floods and major rivers bursting their banks, there is a new phenomenon to contend with: a backflow of water from Lake Victoria due to heavy rains in its catchment area, which is inundating its shores.
That has rendered more than 1,000 families homeless and roads impassable in parts of western Kenya, complicating the humanitarian situation further.
The lake's rising level is also affecting people in Uganda, where authorities say the problem began last October.
The water's depth has crept up from 12 metres to more than 13.3 metres, affecting major towns in the three countries that border the lake, including Kisumu in Kenya, Mwanza in Tanzania, and Entebbe in Uganda.
The effects of the lake's unusually high waters are hampering hydropower generation and transport, and have also flooded settlements on its shores.