Don’t come close: The plight of street children during COVID-19’s ‘forced immobility’

Temilorun Olanipekun

This blog is co-published with Routed: Migration and (Im)mobility Magazine in its special issue of “Epidemics, labour and mobility” and is part of the COMPAS Coronavirus and Mobility Forum.


As the COVID-19 virus keeps raising its victim toll and spreading across the world, national governments have put containment measures in place to curb the spread of the infection in their territories. The virus is no respecter of person or class, and neither are these policies; both affect the young and the old, the rich and the poor, but they exacerbate the vulnerability of the latter. Lockdowns and social distancing have untold effects on street children who cannot afford the economic cost of forced immobility, since their livelihood depends on the benevolence of informal street activities. This article analyses the plight of these children, who rely upon daily street economic activities for sustenance; it espouses how forced immobility in response to COVID-19 deepens the vulnerability of the already vulnerable street children in Ibadan, Oyo State, Nigeria.

Street children: Who are they?

Let us begin by conceptualising the phenomenon of ‘street children’ in the context of this article. Following the research conducted by myself and Dr Aluko on street children, we understand that ‘street children’ is a multifaceted phenomenon that is divided into at least three distinct categories. They are: ‘children on the street’, ‘children at risk’, and ‘children of the street’. The first are those children who work (and play) on the street, to support their household income, but retire home every evening to the embrace and protection of their families. The second are those children who exist in urban spaces and are exposed to the tortures of poverty, and mostly engage in social vices as part of a normative culture. Finally, the third, which is the subject matter of this piece, are those children who live and work on the street, whose only sense of family draws from their social relations with the two other categories of street children outlined above. Their personal histories intimate that they are usually orphans, runaway kids, abandoned children, who often at times do not know their family ties and/or see them in a negative light.

Having clarified who street children are, and in what context the term is used in this article, we proceed to discuss the plights of street children in Ibadan during the COVID-19 lockdown.

‘Suffering pass suffering’

Living as a street child is already a situation of misery, but greater woes come with the added hardships of COVID-19. On a good day, street children get by begging and working several menial jobs such as doing domestic chores in different homes, cleaning and disposing of refuse, carrying people’s luggage in markets, and finding scrap metal on the street to sell to auto mechanics or anyone in need of these merchandises. Unfortunately for these children, their economic activities have been forced to halt as a result of the lockdown and social distancing policies. These cautionary measures have forced these children to remain in their homes – under the ‘Mokola’ overpass. Meanwhile, their survival strategies require moving from one place to another. An orphan, Ayodele (male, 14), succinctly captures the plight of street children in his words:

‘I am used to suffering “o” but I have never experienced anything like this before. “Aaah” suffering pass suffering sir. People don’t come to give us food anymore, and we don’t get jobs because people don’t want to have contact with us. When we approach them to assist with their luggage in exchange for money, they scream at us to not come close, and to not touch them.’

Ayodele’s testimony intimates that precautionary measures taken by people to keep safe from coronavirus have further exacerbated the poverty of street children. ​

Crisis on crisis

Usually exposed to unhealthy environmental conditions that threaten their health, coronavirus has deepened the vulnerability of these children. Some of them use facemasks they find by the road, while many of them are without masks. Yet, these children meet and interact with different people, including other street children, who are just as vulnerable as they are, transiting every day without protection. Nevertheless, they share the same floor to sleep at night without maintaining social distancing. The activities of these children not only threaten their own health, but also put that of others in society at risk. The account given by Kayode (15) corroborates this. In his words:

‘Nobody tells us anything. But we hear side talks about the situation of things now. So, we do what we see people do. That’s why we are using masks too. We usually pick the mask we see by the road. We don’t go out again like before. All of us sleep and wake up here, and hope that people bring food so we can eat.’

The above tells a story of how the vulnerable in society lack vital information about the coronavirus and how to prevent it, since they are detached from traditional and social media where this information is mostly disseminated. Kayode’ testimony not only shows how these children’s lack of (access to) information puts their life at risk, but also intimates their predisposition to survival at all cost. The forced immobility occasioned by COVID-19 exposes them to the risk of contracting the virus. While the mobility of these children may have been restricted, their lifestyle shows that they do not maintain physical distancing where they reside. They sleep pressed together under the overpass, eat from the same plate, hold hands together, yet they keep interacting with other members of the society.

Meanwhile, there is a possibility of being unknowingly asymptomatic – infected by coronavirus without feeling sick. Given that the common symptoms of the virus – fever, tiredness, skin rashes – are what they have been living with for the most part of their lives, can it be that some of these children are already infected with the virus without knowing? Notwithstanding, the plights of these children call for a swift humanitarian response to provide welfare packages and protective materials to them, and conduct COVID-19 tests to ascertain their status. The absence of either puts not only the children at risk, but everyone else as well.

Names have been changed to conceal the identity of the interviewed children. Their responses were recorded in Yoruba and Pidgin while verbatim transcriptions were made accordingly.

Temilorun Olanipekun is a development practitioner. He currently runs a Master’s programme in Sociology of Development at Covenant University, Nigeria. He will be commencing a second Master’s programme in African Studies at the University of Oxford in October 2020.