Coping with Covid-19 in Kenya
IT IS slightly over a year now since the worldwide break out of Coronavirus. In Kenya, President Uhuru Muigai Kenyatta locked down the country after the first case was announced on March 17, 2020.
It took Kenyans a few weeks to digest the situation, overcome the panic and soon afterwards ridicule the government. The young people took to Tik Tok with the challenge, ‘Do you know somebody, who knows somebody, who knows somebody, who knows somebody who has Covid-19?’ It is a stereotypically Kenyan thing to use humour as a coping mechanism to deal with the most serious of situations. While this was a bit of light-hearted fun, deep down, everyone feared the worst.
The country reopened gradually from August 2020 and schools reopened in October, albeit only the candidate classes. Some kind of normalcy returned in January this year, but not for long. The country experienced a second wave of Covid-19 in March, exactly a year since the first case. The most affected counties were put into lockdown—and still are—Nairobi, Nakuru, Kajiado, Kiambu and Machakos. Those counties have a curfew that begins at 8pm, while the rest of the country start theirs at 10pm. Educational institutions also remain closed.
The Tiktok challenge is no longer funny because, like so many Kenyans, I know many people who have lost their lives, are still battling with the virus or have only recently recovered. I recently learnt that a friend of mine who lives in Nairobi lost three people in the space of 15 days. A cousin of mine has tested positive twice. Some of our sisters have tested positive too, thank God they were not sick. The St Patrick’s Missionaries have buried one of their students and the Vincentians also buried a 52-year-old Indian priest as a result of Covid-19.
When I speak about lockdown, one might imagine a total cessation of activities. However, things almost seem normal in the country. Businesses are operating as normal and public service vehicles (matatus) are traversing through counties that are meant to be in lockdown. You wouldn’t be able to tell—during the day at least—that there is a lockdown in place.
With money, you can buy your way out of lockdown and curfew. Vehicles move in and out of the closed counties very easily. We had a retreat in Molo, Nakuru County, recently. In order to get permission to travel, we had to get a letter from the County Commissioner of Kericho, which we did. Yet, much to our disappointment, nobody asked for the letter at the border roadblock we passed coming and going. No explanations were given. We were all very amused by the sister who was driving as she almost pulled over to ask why they were not checking our permit.
Given how corrupt the Kenyan systems are and the fact that Kenyans themselves only put a mask on upon seeing a policeman and don’t adhere to social distancing rules, it’s a miracle that the number of infections have not went through the roof.
Kenyans have been up in arms over the government borrowing money in the past year. They are worried that the debt will be way too much to pay back. There was an online form circulating recently that asked Kenyans to sign a petition to stop IMF (International Monetary Fund) from lending the government any more money since they cannot even account for the past loans. The petition made so much sense, I signed it myself!
The vaccine has been available in Kenya now for a few months, but people are reluctant to get vaccinated mainly because of the propaganda on social media concerning the effects of the vaccine. I know of only two people who have been vaccinated. I received a message from my employer—the Teacher Service Commission—asking me to get vaccinated. It seems it is going to be a requirement in the near future as is face masks, hand washing and social distancing—at least theoretically.
While the government reduced tax to cushion civil servants from the impact of Covid-19, the vast majority of Kenyans—who were either self-employed, unemployed or working in the private sector—suffered greatly from the lockdown. The unfairness of it all, ironically, was that civil servants earned more while at idling at home, while the rest of Kenyans lost their jobs directly or indirectly.
Education and family life
Some private schools decided to lay off their staff to avoid having to pay them during the lockdown period and then hire new ones afterwards. This was both tragic and sad. The teaching profession is flooded in Kenya, that is why teachers are the least paid and worst treated.
My younger sister—who was teaching in a private school in Eldoret—lost her job. She didn’t even receive her March salary. She had to take to hawking potato chips and boiled eggs so as to sustain herself for almost a year. Thankfully, she got a new job in February of this year. However, before she could receive her second salary at the end of March, another lockdown was announced and schools were closed. She has had to stay at home again, but at least this time, there is some hope of resumption. The schools are scheduled to open this month, as confirmed by the Education Cabinet Secretary, George Magoha after noting that the curve had flattened.
Last year—barely four months into the lockdown—a new and difficult situation emerged, namely an increase in teenage pregnancies. In many instances, parents have abdicated their responsibilities and have left the schools to deal with it. Teachers have not only taken the place of parents but have also become counsellors and mentors—despite their low pay.
A report on Citizen TV on June 30, 2020, revealed that an estimated 18.4 per cent of girls aged 15 to 19 have begun child-bearing. While schools resumed for the form four students last November, some female students were either pregnant, had aborted the pregnancy or had a baby at home and couldn’t attend school. The Ministry of Education allows any expectant student to stay at school until they are due. While this sounds fair, one can only imagine the psychological and emotional state of such a student. Some give up their schooling completely, others come back later to finish or go to another school. Only the strong ones, or those whose parents are strong, can endure all through with their pregnancy.
The unfortunate thing is that it is only girls that have to bear the consequences of such early pregnancies. I teach in a boarding secondary school in Eldoret. This term—January to March—we had a form four girl who had a baby at home and could not board at the school. I used to give her lift back home almost every evening. Another girl was heavily pregnant. I am not sure she made it through the National Exams. I guess she must have or else I would have heard about her.
Domestic violence was reportedly on the increase over the lockdown period too. When people’s movements are restricted, they have little to do and very little to eat, and in turn, can become irritable and violent. That’s a terrible example to set to anyone, let alone your own children.
Religion is an inherent part of being African. It is almost considered scandalous not to attend church on a Sunday. It is the same for Muslims and Hindus I guess, albeit I am not an authority on matters outside Christianity. Consequently, there are as many churches in Kenya as there are villages.
The Catholic Church has endeavoured to carry out the bare minimum, resorting to online Masses and reaching out through social media and radio stations. Genuine Christians have thirsted spiritually during this time, while the lukewarm ones delighted in not having to offer their time and finances to the church. It’s the latter who didn’t return to churches when they finally reopened.
Catholic priests have also felt the financial impact of Covid-19 much more than religious sisters. Many sisters are involved in farming and other income generating activities and are not as financially dependent on the Church.
Adapting to Covid-19
However, every cloud has a silver lining. With the advent of Covid-19 and lockdown, Kenyans have been forced to acquire new skills, push themselves to the limit and find new ways of surviving.