With easing of COVID-19 restrictions, community vigilance is paramount

Written By: Edward Mwachinga
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Mr Mwachinga is an Advocate of the High Court of Kenya and a Partner at Viva Africa Consulting LLP. emwachinga@yahoo.co.uk

The easing of COVID-19 movement restrictions last week raised hope that the economy will finally begin to recover from the devastation of the pandemic.

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There is however a huge underlying risk of a surge in infections if Kenyans become complacent in adhering to health guidelines to curb the spread of the virus.

In fact, COVID-19 is spreading fast in the country with more than 250 people testing positive daily. While this may not appear like a big number compared to countries like the US which has recently recorded up to 45,000 new infections on a single day, it should be noted that we are yet to test the vast majority of our population and the situation is set to change dramatically as more Kenyans are tested.

With this in mind, it is imperative that we continue social distancing, wearing face masks and observing hand hygiene. In addition, there is a need for concerted action to curb the community spread of the disease including aggressive public awareness and mobilisation.

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However, interventions at the community level should aim at keeping everyone safe not only from COVID-19 but also crime and insecurity.

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In this regard, it should be noted that COVID-19 has had debilitating socio-economic consequences including job losses, rise in domestic violence, explosion in teenage pregnancies and mental stress.

If not addressed, this dire situation may exacerbate crime and insecurity. In particular, it may fuel radicalization in communities that are considered vulnerable to extremism. This is because violent extremists in our midst may seek to exploit the growing anxiety, frustration and despondency in sections of the populace.

Nairobi, Mombasa and Mandera counties, where the movement restrictions were lifted, have experienced terror attacks in the past. The threat is real not just in the three counties but across the country.

For example, the DCIs Anti-Terrorism Police Unit (ATPU) and Special Services Unit (SSU) last week arrested two terror suspects and recovered explosives and assorted bomb-making items in Kapseret Sub-County, UasinGishu County.

This amplifies the need for heightened vigilance against terrorists and other criminals.

Preventing and countering violent extremism (PCVE) should, therefore, be prioritized alongside COVID-19 preventive health measures. More important is crafting strategies to tackle factors fueling insecurity in our communities.

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Providing economic opportunities during these very difficult times is one way of taming insecurity. A good example is the ‘Kazi Mashinani’ programme targeting 270,000 youth across the country.

Other social interventions including weekly stipends to the vulnerable, InuaJamii program, food rations and other forms of humanitarian relief through the Kenya COVID-19 Fund should be enhanced.

Building community resilience to radicalization and recruitment to violent extremism requires active engagement of various grassroots actors mainly youth. This is key to PCVE success and rallying communities to stop the spread of COVID-19.

I recently came across an article highlighting the challenges facing a group fighting violent extremism in Nairobi’s Pumwani area.

The article by the Europe External Policy Advisors claims that reduced business due to COVID-19 and mysterious fire outbreaks in the adjacent Gikomba market, has led to fears that extremists active in the area may manipulate local grievances to radicalize youth.  This shows the direct link between COVID-19 and extremism.

To effectively address security-related challenges due to the pandemic, county authorities and community health workers should work closely with law enforcement agencies to identify terror-related activities.

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Community policing under the Nyumba Kumi initiative comes in handy in identifying families affected by COVID-19 social and economic shocks and delivering appropriate responses. This is part of the wider PCVE agenda of dealing with grievances likely to escalate into violence.

Promoting a culture of civic discipline among our people will not only ensure continued adherence to public health guidelines but also reinforce law and order in our villages, towns and cities.

We should be vigilant against the two enemies, the invisible one wreaking havoc to our health and the other one living amongst us, preparing to unleash terror. Both can be defeated if we all exercise individual responsibility to protect ourselves and others.

In short, winning the war against the coronavirus should be accompanied by gains in preventing and countering violent extremism at the local and community level. That way, we shall emerge as a stronger and safer country when COVID-19 is finally behind us.

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