Senegal’s Street Children Among Those Most at Risk for COVID-19

Faty, from the Village Pilote association wears a protective face mask during a food distribution to street children amid an outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Dakar, Senegal April 1, 2020. Picture taken April 1, 2020. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

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DAKAR, SENEGAL – Senegal has more than 200 reported cases of coronavirus, prompting President Macky Sall to declare a state of emergency last week. Among those most vulnerable to the virus are the street children of the capital, who live in crowded boarding homes and are forced to beg for a living.

Jules Souleymane Ndiaye distributes milk to street children, known as talibes, in Mbour, south of Dakar. The children are told to line up single file, with a distance of one meter between each person.

Son of a talibe himself, Ndiaye is co-founder of Pour Une Enfance Senegal (For a Childhood in Senegal). The Franco-Senegalese association was created in 2012 to help street children, who are estimated to number at least 100,000.

Boarding homes

Ndiaye said the talibes are among the most vulnerable to catching and spreading the coronavirus. Most live in daaras, which are boarding homes run by Islamic scholars that are notorious for their unsanitary, crowded conditions.

Ndiaye said association members tell the children they must not shake hands with people, and that they must clean up when they come in from outside. He said some of the kids have even made a homemade sink in which to wash their hands.

Children wait to get their meal from members of the Village Pilote association during a food distribution to street children…
FILE – Street children wait to get meals from members of the Village Pilote association amid an outbreak of the coronavirus disease, in Dakar, Senegal, April 1, 2020.

In 2016, Senegalese authorities introduced a law that officially prohibits children from begging, in an effort to get the talibes off the streets. But the law has never been enforced.

The National Food Security Council of Senegal said it plans to provide for underprivileged families to help get them through the coronavirus pandemic.

Niokhobaye Diouf, director of a child protection committee with Senegal’s Ministry of Family, said Senegalese authorities have a coronavirus emergency plan for street children.  Dakar has made 13 educational social centers available, said Diouf, as well as other community centers.  They are talking about a capacity of 1,500 beds, he said.

Keeping the talibes off the street to avoid coronavirus is key, said Amara Thiam, a nurse with For a Childhood in Senegal.

Infection could spread

Thiam said infection in one talibe would be a disaster because the child’s daara, maybe all daaras, would be subject to infection. When the children go out on the street, he said, they interact a lot with each other.

Before the pandemic, he ran the center’s clinic, which gave basic medical care to about 30 street children per day.

For a Childhood in Senegal also ran a center that offered classrooms, playrooms, showers, a bakery and a vegetable garden, making it a haven for talibes. But now the center, like much of Dakar, is closed to prevent spreading the virus.

Co-founder Ndiaye said a stay-at-home lockdown might be the only thing that spares the kids from catching the virus and passing it to others.

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Stay Home. Stay Safe. Save Lives.
#COVID19