In Nairobi, quarantine is a luxury few can afford

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As COVID-19 takes hold in Kenya’s capital, hundreds of thousands living in cramped informal settlements are especially vulnerable.

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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 most other families in this sprawling community, the Agures have no running water and must use a communal toilet. Zedekia and his wife, Sarah, run a small stand outside their home where they sell hand soap, packaged sweets, used clothing, and other items.

For Zedekia and Sarah, antibacterial sanitizers and protective masks are an expense beyond their reach, and self-quarantining against the coronavirus simply isn’t a choice. “How will we...

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