WASHINGTON - In Africa, slowly rising numbers of cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, have surpassed 100,000, according to the World Health Organization. The coronavirus has spread to every country on the continent.
Researchers fear the virus will hit the most vulnerable African communities — the pastoralists, particularly those in Kenya, as officials have extended bans on travel in and out of Nairobi until June 1.
Pastoralists — cattle, sheep or camel farmers whose livelihoods depend on animals — move from place to place seeking water and pasture. They are often far from city services and lack access to health care and sanitation services. Many come from remote villages to take their animals and milk products to customers in Nairobi.
Loko Guyo, a 35-year-old pastoralist, heard of the coronavirus killing thousands of people globally. When she learned of the deaths of some of her customers, she knew the virus was real and dangerous.
“Everybody in my village is terrorized,” she said. “This is worse than HIV/AIDS because you can get it from the air. We must be very careful going to the market.”
Guyo makes her living selling camel and cow milk. She said she does not know what to do next, other than wait for Kenyan officials to ease restrictions in Nairobi.
Guyo belongs to a semi-nomadic pastoralist community in Isiolo, a county in northern Kenya, where she is responsible for the well-being of six family members. In Isiolo, animals are essential sources of food and financial security.
She said if the travel ban continues, some of the children in the family will be sent temporarily to her brother in Marsabit County. She is considering selling illegal charcoal to help make a living.
“What else can I do for now?" she said.
Korbessa, a small town east of Isiolo, is three hours from Nairobi. Seventy percent of its residents depend on animals, said Tahira Shariff, a doctoral candidate at the University of Sussex in Britain.
Korbessa is one of Shariff’s four research sites where she is focusing on pastoralism and life amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“If they can’t sell their milk and other dairy products, they would [have] serious challenges balancing their daily life,” Shariff said.
Pastoralists such as Fadumo Mohamed, from Isiolo County, are hoping for the days when they can return to their milk business in Nairobi. She said she is not sure if she would still have customers.
The economic costs of COVID-19 have already been harsher than the direct impact on these moving communities, Shariff told VOA’s Horn of Africa service.
Border closures, movement restrictions and quarantines have added challenges to pastoralists’ daily lives.
If they become constrained by restrictions, their livelihoods will be destroyed, Qu Dongyu, director general of the Food and Agriculture Organization, said in an opinion article.
“Governments, even as they prioritize public health goals, must do everything in their power to keep trade routes open and supply chains alive,” he said.
"The pastoralist economy is based on movements and are usually left out of state," professor Gufu Oba of the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, told the Horn of Africa service.
“They live and herd through uncertain paths,” he said.
States should help essential but most vulnerable African communities during this pandemic, said Gufu.
Studies show pastoralists are among the most vulnerable people living in a region of about 20 million people in need of food security. Guyo helps her family by selling more than 10 liters of camel and cow milk weekly.
But because of restrictions on transportation, she had to rent trucks with others to deliver buckets of milk to groceries in Nairobi.
“We had to pay extra for the cost of transportation,” Guyo said. “Prices are uncertain. Weather can be unpredictable, and demand is not always as high as you might think. A sudden outbreak like this pandemic can complicate our lives.”
Reports show that a small-scale milk trader like Guyo earns on average about $110 a month.
The pandemic has impacted both domestic and international markets. The traditional flooding of animals — taking animals to market on busy routes — from the Horn of Africa to the Arabian Peninsula involves millions of ruminants, which is likely to be problematic, said Michele Nori, a Wageningen University researcher in the Netherlands.
The majority of African pastoralists live in extreme poverty, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights said in a statement to VOA Horn of Africa.
During difficult times countries give tax breaks and other social benefits to their urban citizens said Shariff. “Pastoralist communities shouldn’t be left out just because they live in remote areas,” she said.
Pastoralists meet in many community places where transmission of the coronavirus is highly possible unless serious intervention is done.
Advocates are calling on the media to get the COVID-19 message to pastoralists. To improve access to COVID-19 prevention methods, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights suggests translating guidelines into local languages.
As COVID-19 cases are peaking in Africa, the impact on pastoralists is also increasing. Its effects on the livestock sector are still largely unquantified and yet to be fully felt, the FAO said.
This article originated in VOA’s Horn of Africa service.