This story first appeared in The Star newspaper
In the small garden behind Dandora 1 Health Centre, a tent and table has been set up for COVID-19 vaccinations. Health workers sit at the table checking IDs and registering local residents who have turned up to get their jab – a mixture of teachers, health workers and older people. A small queue has formed, with people sitting on a bench or plastic chairs as they await their turn.
Dandora is home to both a densely packed urban community and one of the largest rubbish dumps in Africa. Outside the health centre, the sounds of children playing can be heard, along with boda boda motorbikes and the Friday call to prayers. A large graffiti mural shows a doctor with stethoscope advising residents to wear a mask, wash their hands, and keep physical distance, under the slogan “komesha korona” (stop coronavirus).
Grade 2 Teacher Rosemary Waithera is one of the first people to get vaccinated. She removes the sleeve of her grey cardigan, turns her head and closes her eyes, while the nurse injects the COVID-19 vaccine in her upper left arm. In a few seconds it’s over, but the nurse asks Rosemary to sit down for another 15 minutes, in case she has any immediate side effects such as dizziness.
“I decided to get vaccinated because I realized I’m vulnerable,” Rosemary says. “I need to protect myself from COVID-19. I’ve come to realise that it’s real. My nephew was almost dying the other day, so I cannot rule out that I could also get it. And I’ve seen many others who have been vaccinated and they are OK, so the fear is gone.”
“As a teacher, I want to encourage anyone who has not come for this jab to do it as soon as possible.”
Next up is Crispin Bolo Otira, a 60-year-old local resident and father of five children, three of whom are still at school. A former printer, he was made redundant as the economic impact of COVID-19 restrictions started to bite in 2020. Since then, his main difficulties have been financial, but he becomes visibly emotional when he talks about the prospect of dying from COVID-19 and leaving his youngest children without a father.
“When COVID-19 appeared last year, I lost my job,” Crispin says. “I’m facing financial challenges because school fees are still there and we are struggling. One of my children is in secondary school and two are in primary. It is getting hard but as a parent, I’m trying.”
“Now, after being vaccinated, I’m very happy,” he continues. “I decided to come today to be on the safe side. I’m 60 years old and I have a nine-year-old boy and a six-year-old. There is no point bringing children into this world and then leaving them at that tender age. That’s why I urge those who have reached my age to come and get vaccinated. Now we have this weapon, we can fight coronavirus.”
Kenya received just over 1 million doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine in March 2021, procured and transported by UNICEF through the COVAX facility, which aims to provide equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines for low and middle-income countries. Since then, UNICEF has been working with the Ministry of Health and World Health Organisation on the ‘Pata Chanjo ya Tumaini’ (Get the Vaccine of Hope) campaign, which encourages people in the eligible groups to get vaccinated.
After starting with health workers, who are on the frontline of the fight against COVID-19, the criteria have now been expanded to include teachers, other essential workers and people over 58 years old. So far, 75 percent of eligible health workers have been vaccinated but only 41 percent of teachers.
“With schools expected to reopen on 10 May, we are encouraging more teachers to come forward and get vaccinated,” UNICEF Kenya’s Chief of Health Yaron Wolman says. “Vaccines are safe and effective and provide a crucial extra layer of protection against COVID-19. This will help schools reopen safely, alongside other existing measures such as mask wearing, regular hand washing, good ventilation in classrooms and physical distancing.”
One of the people responsible for ensuring this message gets across to the public is Nairobi County Health Promotion Coordinator Lillian Mutua. She says that COVID-19 has brought a lot of anxiety to Nairobi residents, alongside the impact of school closures and economic hardship.
“I got my vaccination in March, as I’m a health worker and spend a lot of time mixing with communities,” Lillian says. “I lost my mum to COVID-19 and my two sisters were also exposed to it. To protect myself from this disease, and to set an example to my family and the people I meet with, I had to take the vaccine.”
“As a frontline worker, I would request other health workers to come up and take the vaccination,” she continues. “We are among the people who are at greatest risk. Kindly take the vaccine so that you stay safe. You protect yourself first, then the people you love and their families, the community and the whole nation.”
As a light drizzle of rain begins to fall, Rosemary’s fellow teacher Harriet Wambui Ngari, 54, also gets her vaccination. While sitting for the required 15 minutes, she reflects on the challenges faced by the teaching community over the past year.
“When we went back to school last October, we had numerous challenges,” Harriet recalls. “So many of our children didn’t come back to school in the first week. Some feared the pandemic and we had to sensitize parents to understand that their children are safe. Then they embraced the idea and released their children to come back to school.”
“I came to get vaccinated because I want to be safe,” she continues. “I had a heavy load on my back but now I’m OK. As a teacher and a mother, I understand the importance of a vaccine. I also wanted to be an ambassador. So that any teachers who didn’t have the confidence to get vaccinated, when I tell them my story – that I am here, and I am vaccinated – they will wake up and go.”
While challenges remain, including the global shortage of COVID-19 vaccines due to the second wave of infections in India, it is clear that Kenya has made a strong start to its vaccination campaign. The health workers, teachers and older parents who have come forward to be vaccinated can now resume their work and lives with the reassurance of an extra shield against this devastating disease.