Emma Nyabicha, Project Coordinator for the Urban Links Africa Project in Kenya, explains how the lockdown as a result of Covid-19 has affected Kenyans and provided opportunities for systemic change in the country.
On 15th March 2020, President Uhuru Kenyatta gave directives aimed at stopping the spread of the novel Covid-19 virus. The President urged Kenyans to avoid social gatherings and encouraged workers to work from home.
This briefing sent waves of shock to the Kenyan populace as it dawned on us that this new virus had now become our lived reality, reordering all facets of our lives.
Immediately, WhatsApp groups became awash with panic messages as we tried to seek social solidarity and help each other make sense of the incomprehensible. Many employers promptly took to their emails and company WhatsApp groups to inform their employees to work from home henceforth in a bid to curb the spread of the virus.
‘Even as the economic consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic are being felt, this crisis has also created a great opportunity for systemic change.’
Nearly two months down the line, working remotely has become the new normal for Kenyans. It has presented numerous benefits and myriad challenges in equal measure.
From a digital perspective, travel restrictions and physical distancing has forced us to re-evaluate the way we work, and as a result has exposed Kenya’s weak broadband infrastructure. In light of this, companies and individuals are increasingly exploring digital solutions to continue some economic and social activity remotely, but which, due to a gap in digital readiness, cannot be used by all.
On the other hand, the majority of the Kenyans who live hand to mouth face a different reality. Unlike many countries around the world, the Kenyan government has been reluctant to impose a full lock down, as it tries to establish a balance between saving lives and saving livelihoods. There is a famous Kenyan proverb that states ‘We share the same sun but we do not share the same roofs’ and the Kenyan goverment has tried to be mindful of this saying when setting policy around Covid-19.
Instead the government has introduced numerous directives, including a countrywide dusk to dawn curfew, plus cessation of movement in and out of the Nairobi Metropolitan Area, Kilifi, Kwale, Mandera and Mombasa Counties. The government has also directed that everyone must wear face masks in public.
‘The pandemic has provided Kenya with an opportunity to transform its economy and politics in true service to the people, and made us realise that we are only as strong the most vulnerable in our society.’
The county governments have also put up a spirited fight against the spread of the virus, with a remarkable multitude of initiatives being seen across the country. As an example, on 15th April, 2020, Mombasa Governor Hassan Ali Joho gave the national police thousands of masks and asked them to hand out the excess to members of the public, instead of arresting them. Additionally, he launched a nutrition support system and built auto-sprayers for use at the Likoni Ferry, which handles traffic of up to 300,000 passengers and 6,000 motorists every day.
In Kisumu, the third largest of Kenya’s cities, Governor Anyang’ Nyong’o has also been working with the County Commissioner to impose the nationwide curfew and handle other Covid-19 response measures.
In sum, even as the economic consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic are being felt, this crisis has also created a great opportunity for systemic change. The pandemic has provided Kenya with an opportunity to transform its economy and politics in true service to the people, and made us realise that we are only as strong the most vulnerable in our society.
The pandemic has made us embrace technology and opened our eyes to the endless opportunities it offers in our day to day lives. In the same vein, it has forced us to raise questions on the role of technology in our lives, and how we could bridge the digital divide and strengthen the already existing infrastructure for the betterment of our lives.