It started like any other year. Archived snapshots of the websites of local and international media houses from January 1, 2020 show no stories of public health apprehension — just ordinary year-ending items.
Even the zealous London-based psychic Nicolas Aujula, who foresaw an election loss and a reluctant exit for US President Donald Trump in his predictions — published on January 1 on Kenya’s Standard website — did not foresee a virus-induced tragedy. Instead, he predicted mass protests across the globe. He was wrong to a large extent.
The media cannot be accused of misreading the times, though. It was in late December 2019 that Chinese officials in Hubei province confirmed dozens of cases of a resilient type of pneumonia whose cause was unknown, but it was only on January 7 that China confirmed the cause as a new coronavirus. Three days later, the Asian country reported its first death from the virus. And then, on January 20, the first case of the coronavirus was confirmed outside China.
On February 11, the World Health Organisation gave it a name: Coronavirus disease, or simply Covid-19. By March 11, when WHO declared it a pandemic, the Covid-19 story had become all about deaths and devastation across the globe, with lockdowns and travel restrictions being the byword for most governments. News sites, of course, were by then giving the disease lots of coverage; so much that some people accused them of fostering paranoia.
When the first case was confirmed in Kenya on March 13, a number of measures were introduced that turned 2020 from a promising to a lost year. Thanks to the virus, the year is ending with a whimper, without the roaring sounds of students cheering in school competitions, bereft of the song and dance that accompanies the release of national examination results, lacking the midnight shouts from nightclubs filled with thrilled partygoers, and without the lungful chants and taunts of fans enjoying national and regional sporting events.
Luckily, everything, no matter how bad or unusual, has an end. The year 2020 has been unforgiving; the virus is still here with us, ravaging economies and families, but resilient communities are keeping their heads above the water, swimming to lands unknown. Here, a catalogue of the horror story so far, and what the future looks like.
1.Economy cries for a fix:
Many Kenyans will want to quickly forget 2020 because it saw them lose their income sources; either their jobs or the businesses they were running. It has been a year of banks restructuring loans amid a high rate of loan defaults, corporates declaring sharply shrinking earnings compared to previous years, and some businesses closing down altogether, to mention but a few. For businesses that held on, it was the year of surviving and not thriving, as KCB Group CEO Joshua Oigara famously said in November.
The battered economy will need a lot to recover. Economist Bitange Ndemo says there are a number of things the government can do to turn things around. One of them is a reversal to the Kibaki-era policy of the government reducing it appetite for loans from local banks.
“The government heavily reduced domestic borrowing and banks started hawking loans to MSMEs (micro, small and medium enterprises) and individuals. That is the only way banks will begin talking to people and MSMEs, the two groups who are the engine of the economy,” Prof Ndemo told the Sunday Nation.
The University of Nairobi lecturer also recommends that the government issues a stimulus package to three sectors: MSMEs, agriculture and industry.
“Most of people involved in these three areas do not have the luxury of walking into banks and getting loans like the big companies. So while the government is broke, it still has to spend to stimulate the three sectors,” he said. “Agriculture is the biggest in terms of GDP contribution and it needs to be propped up so that famers have money in their pockets and they are able to market their produce competitively.”
The former Information Permanent Secretary also believes that Kenya should move to make access to technology cheaper.
“We should remove taxes on broadband and devices like laptops — which is very high, by the way. These have become the daily basic requirements and key to job creation,” he said. “Technology is now driving the world and the sooner the government recognises that, the better for the recovery of our economy.”
Prof Ndemo also believes the government can rescue the “limping” tourism sector by removing visa requirements for those visiting Kenya.
“This should be a long-term strategic move aimed at leveraging on existing international relationships,” he says.
2.Curtains almost drawing on entertainment industry:
Genge artiste Jua Cali (Paul Julius Nunda) approximates that since March, he has lost 50 major shows as a result of restrictions aimed at containing the virus.
“In December alone, on almost every weekend we were guaranteed at least two shows. Those are not there now,” he told the Sunday Nation. “The moment the restrictions came, especially the curfew, everything went dark. There are clubs that have tried to at least do shows till around 9pm; and it’s tough. And even if you get the shows, club owners depend on sales of alcohol to keep going.”
Suffering similarly consequences are players in the film industry. Mr Oliver Masafu, a digital strategist and content creator at KenyaBuzz, a platform that deals with movie screenings and events, says the closure of film theatres for the better part of the year was a big blow. We asked him to approximate the percentage by which entertainment events that KenyaBuzz advertises reduced this year compared to previous years.
“Let me say a cool 97 per cent. It’s been that bad,” said Mr Masafu. “We used to have almost a million visitors a month on kenyabuzz.com. There were no movies and because that’s where a majority of people come to look for movies online, that reduced our website visits by a whole 70 per cent.”
TicketSasa is also a player in the events industry, helping plan and issue tickets for events ranging from concerts to festivals and sporting events. Ms Janette Rono, the product manager at TicketSasa, says there was a drop of about 90 per cent in the events the company was involved in in 2020 compared to previous periods.
“We have technically not had any social events throughout the pandemic,” she told the Sunday Nation. “Most of the major concerts, festivals, and sporting events rely on numbers. So it’s pretty difficult for an event owner or organiser in Kenya to be able to put up a successful event without the numbers.”
One of the early events they had to remove from their plans was the Kenya Open golf tournament, which was cancelled on March 6.
So, what can be done to revive the entertainment industry in 2021?
Jua Cali believes that it is only the Covid-19 vaccine that will help, “but now we are hearing of new virus strains, meaning that 2021 is still not guaranteed” . Mr Masafu also believes that it is only a vaccine that can save the day.
3. Education sector chalks up problems:
Ms Anne Obonyo, the director of St Nicholas Schools in Nairobi, is among the players in the education sector who have been closely following government pronouncements on Covid-19 starting from March 15, when the government announced the closure of schools.
One of the things that caught her attention were the remarks made in August by Education Cabinet Secretary George Magoha, that the government would provide Sh7 billion that private schools can borrow at affordable rates to help them address the challenges brought about by Covid-19.
“Not even one school has seen that money,” she says as she wonders what became of the move that could have rescued a number of schools.
Most private schools have been crushed by the pandemic, with some having to close altogether because the owners could not afford to pay rent.
Prof Magoha on Tuesday said public schools should admit all learners from private schools, and that means public schools should expect a surge in numbers on the January 4 reopening date.
The closure of school shut the door on events like sports, music and drama competitions. With distancing measures recommended upon reopening and a tight learning schedule to recover lost time, it is hardly likely the events will return to their initial levels.
4. Missed vaccination schedules:
In late November, the Nairobi Metropolitan Service had to organise an immunisation drive in Roysambu area because it was recording alarmingly low numbers of children being taken for vaccination. Mothers interviewed at the clinic said they had defied the schedules and opted to stay at home with their children out of fear of contracting Covid-19.
Ms Virginia Wanjiku said she could not take her daughter for the second dose of vaccination against the human papillomavirus because she had heard that doctors were also getting sick and dying of Covid-19: “Vile nilisikia madaktari hata wao wanakufa na hii corona, ’mi nikaona mtoto wangu ataenda pale hospitali apate corona atuambukize,” she said.
Zuena Macharia had also skipped the ninth-month measles immunisation for her son over the same fears. Such dread made 2020 a lost year for many children on scheduled vaccination, and if the Roysambu case is anything to go by, authorities will have a lot to do in the new year.
5. Dampened gatherings and social events:
Event planner Joshua Bosire banks on club events and weddings to bring most of the revenue for his company, JayB Events. But in 2020, such events have been few and far between.
“By now I could have done around 50 events. Because of Covid-19, I’ve done about 10,” Mr Bosire said last week.
He has seen event organisers forced to adjust plans because venues want fewer numbers than they can hold.
“Before Covid-19, a table could take about 10 guests, but now that is restricted to five or four. Reducing the numbers affects budgets,” he said.
There are families that performed hurried burials for loved ones, contrary to their traditions, children who are yet to be introduced to their grandparents for the traditional first shaving tradition observed by many communities, and get-togethers that were cancelled altogether, all in a bid to be on the safe side of the recommended measures against the virus.
Mr Bosire believes that most of the social events can return to normal with a vaccine and the lifting of the curfew — which President Uhuru Kenyatta is set to review on January 3.
“With a vaccine, there will be reduced tension and things will return to normal. We pray that things return to normal by next year,” said Mr Bosire.
6. Desperation in low-income communities:
Community mobiliser Eric Ambuche invited journalists to the Mukuru kwa Njenga informal settlement earlier in the year to show the world how women were risking their health by picking carrier bags from dumpsites, washing them in the polluted river waters and later selling them to vegetable vendors and other traders who sometimes offer packaging as a complementary service.
“It has never happened before,” Mr Ambuche told the Sunday Nation of the trend, attributing it to the desperation that came with the loss of jobs.
“They say necessity is the mother of invention. People have been forced to do awkward things,” he said.
A rise in teenage pregnancies, a spike in women engaging into prostitution, and increased instances of gender-based violence are among the consequences of the economic hardships faced by Mukuru kwa Njenga dwellers, according to Mr Ambuche, the founder of Slums Outreach Programme.
“The government should try to empower people to be self-reliant. If the people had something small, like a grant, their lives would be better and they won’t depend much on the government or someone to employ them.”
7.A stressed, worrisome population:
A Nairobi-based organisation that offers free counselling saw a surge in calls from distressed Kenyans from the second month of the lockdown in Kenya.
Befrienders Kenya says that between May and June, it received 256 calls, which was 84 per cent of the calls received in the first half of the year.
Ms Mabel Inganji, who receives calls at the organisation before referring callers to counsellors, told the Sunday Nation that most of the callers were complaining about the effects of the virus on their finances and other aspects of life.
Counselling psychologist Mercy Njau says the pandemic brought “one of the biggest stressors possibly for many of us in our lives”.
“And in that confusion, you are alone because you have to distance; you have to stay in your home; there’s lockdown. And that causes a lot more strain mentally because we are wired to connect,” she said.
To her, the worst thing Covid-19 did was to separate people.
“You are in a sense going through these things alone, and that plays a number on you mentally: You are anxious and you are stressed and on top of that you’re alone; so it’s heightened,” said Ms Njau.
To rise above the mental devastation that 2020 came with, Ms Njau advises Kenyans to consider finishing the year as a win.
“We miss the fact that we have actually pushed through. We miss the fact that we have woken up every morning despite the challenges, despite the pain, despite the anxiety, that we have kept going… Let’s celebrate this win. Because if we don’t learn to look for the wins, then life becomes one dreary, dark, unhappy place,” she says.