In Nairobi, quarantine is a luxury few can afford

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Paramedics, members of the fire brigade, and volunteers with the Sonko Rescue Team fumigate the central business district in Kenya’s capital to curb the spread of COVID-19. For people in the city’s hundred-plus informal settlements, such as Kibera, self-isolation is impossible, and masks and gloves unaffordable.

A version of this story appears in the July 2020 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Driving through Kenya’s capital city during the time of coronavirus is like moving between two disconnected realities. Neighborhoods such as Muthaiga and Karen are silent—their streets deserted, their occupants invisible inside lush compounds, their houses well stocked with food and other necessities. A few miles southwest of downtown is Kibera, home to a quarter of a million people surviving together beneath tin roofs. Kibera is the largest of the more than a hundred informal settlements in Nairobi, where the vast majority of people scrape by on no more than a few dollars a day.

Kenya is one of the world’s most unequal societies. Less than 0.1 percent of the country’s 53 million people own more wealth than the other 99.9 percent.

Each morning in Kibera, Zedekia Agure wakes before the sun in the windowless, one-room home he shares with his wife and five children. White, rose-lace curtains cover the bare walls; the wood of the family’s single table has been polished until it gleams. Like...

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