Letter from Kenya

The city avenues were congested as people flocked shopping centers with bright optimistic faces. It is an unusual thing to behold as global reports indicate how coronavirus is killing many and devastating economies. As I meander through the crowds, I wonder whether people care about their health and loved ones. I’m lost in thoughts. I asked the cab driver to drop me in Westlands, a sprawling commercial high-end suburb three kilometers from the Nairobi Central Business District (CBD), for numerous business errands.

On this Thursday, one of the associates I was meeting asked, “Is the curfew still useful?” I was meeting him for the first time, but it seems we had similar concerns about Kenya. Since the first coronavirus case was recorded, the country has been under a nighttime curfew between 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. as part of the measures to curb the spread of coronavirus.

As I jostled to get back home after a series of meeting and other engagements in Westlands, my acquaintance struck up a conversation about the virus spread and the effectiveness of the mitigatory measures, especially with reports of the new variant of the virus within the country. “I don’t think the curfew is useful at all. It should be removed,” he said.

His argument—which has been popular in the public—is that people are exhausted with the curfew, and many night businesses are closing down. The political leaders have failed to set a good example in controlling the virus spread, encouraging crowds to gather as they popularize their agendas for the general elections in August 2022.

The political atmosphere is charged as allies of President Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga are pushing through a constitutional amendment referendum with intense campaigns from opposing political groups. Those coalescing around the Deputy President William Ruto, once a political friend to the president, also conduct campaigns to oppose the proposed changes. The effect of this jostling is that the virus containment measures are ignored. There is no social distancing and wearing of masks. Politicians and the charged crowds are recklessly shaking hands, especially when the rallies are organized in informal settlements and rural neighborhoods.

After the discussion and catching up, we decided to take a bus. Although the Ministry of Health has issued COVID-19 protocols for public transport, what we see is total disregard of all measures. People are congested without any social distancing and masks.

Caroline Otieno, one of the passengers, acknowledged that there is an increasing indifference among people regarding the virus. “Cost of living is high, government taxation is steep, and basic needs prices are constantly rising. Worrying about the virus is not a priority right now,” she said, to our dismay. Caroline’s sentiments are popular and people are preoccupied with meeting their basic needs.

Another passenger, Kevin Munir, works as a rider within the city. He says that, with most of his colleagues, they are mobilized by politicians to attend the political rallies. The question is, why does he leave his work and risk his health by going to the mass gatherings where social distancing and other precautions are ignored? 

“From those meetings, sometimes we are given as much as 2000 Kenyan shillings. Sometimes less, sometimes more,” he said. From this, it is safe to infer that people thronging the meetings are motivated, not by what they will hear, but the money offered by politicians.

As usual, poverty is the issue. If people were empowered and had sustainable means of income, they would never endanger their lives and those of loved ones by going to these risky events. If they were able to cater for their basic needs, they would not expose themselves to the virus.

The country has recorded more than 100,000 cases of the virus infection, with deaths totaling 1,794 people.  In the recent past, there has been a rise in infections and reports of a new variant from South Africa, making hopes of lifting the curfew and recovery of the economy bleaker.

Even more worrying, the individuals are more careless to the virus and want the restrictive measures imposed to be lifted. Everyone focuses on their businesses or working, ensuring that they are able to make ends meet as they meander through the hostile economy. Based on the political willingness and public attitude, keeping the virus at is a matter of chance, not priority.

“Why is the curfew still there?” my acquaintance insists. “Imagine they [the government] are insisting that we have to be home by 10 p.m., meaning that we close our businesses that could earn a few more shillings if they operated until late,” he said. His argument is resonant given the realities of the tanking economy. Many are of the view that the restrictive night curfew limiting business operations, or travelling is against the spirit of 24-hour economy, something that could earn people extra revenue.

And what appears to be hardening the uncaring attitude about the virus are the media reports of rampant pillage of public resources, some from international donors, to help in the fight. Connected politicians and their families, as well as their cronies, are alleged to have looted the funds and awarded themselves tenders, running the government coffers dry. This has demoralized the public and brewed palpable resentment.

“These guys are subjecting the restrictive measures on us, yet they themselves are flouting them,” my acquaintance said near the end of our one-hour bus ride. “While they are at it, they are benefitting. They are getting rich off the pandemic.”

Donald Ngonyo