Friday the 13th
On the afternoon of March 13, 2020 Kenya’s Ministry of Health through Cabinet Secretary (Minister) Mutahi Kagwe called a press conference to announce the unwelcome news everyone had been wishing would stay away – the country’s first case of Novel Corona Virus Disease (COVID-19), a disease contracted through a virus that has sent shockwaves throughout the entire global economy. “A Kenya citizen who traveled back to Nairobi returning from the United States of America via United Kingdom on 5th March 2020”. A 26 year old female was the carrier of the of the much dreaded imported virus that broke out in Wuhan, China in December 2019, dispelling myths that it was only affecting the ageing generation as had been perceived by some.
During the same announcement all public gatherings, meetings, religious crusades, games and all events that were of huge public nature were suspended. Public transport providers would be directed to provide hand sanitisers for their clients and regular cleaning for their vehicles and eventually passenger numbers restricted. All visits to prisons banned for 30 days, learning from the lowest to the highest level suspended – all schools and universities closed. In bound and out bound flights would be restricted and later suspended (with exception of cargo and evacuation flights) in a bid to slow down or contain the spread of the virus.
The effect of this single announcement was felt almost immediately. Trading at the Nairobi Securities Exchange (NSE) was halted after the 20 share index plunged by more than 5% at the opening session with most foreign investors pulling back from investment in blue chip stocks and opting for fixed income assets. Billions of dollars lost in a single day.
#COVID19 – the invisible enemy that had for three months been observed from further afield through social media platforms and media outlet broadcasts and publications with subtle bouts of anxiety and panic, much to the detriment of slim economic gains made had inescapably made its way into Kenya. The biggest blow to globalisation to date!
Then Begun the Panic
At the hyper markets, hundreds on thousands of panic buyers queued to stock up on much talked about items needed to prevent the spread of the virus. All kinds of soap, hand sanitiser, surgical spirit, cotton wool, toilet paper, disinfectants emptied off the shelves mainly by what could be described as the middle class who filled shopping malls in droves. Some packed up and left for the countryside avoiding an assumed lockdown like what most countries with high cases such as Italy had done.
The first case having been announced on a Friday, some places of worship had been caught off guard. Some issued statements announcing they would be moving most of their services online with some insisting, “God is bigger than the virus” and they would keep their doors open to the public on worship days, then later cave in to the government’s urgent directives to save lives that forced them to suspend congregations indefinitely.
Toll free lines to report any suspected COVID19 cases would be published, step by step instructions on how to maintain the highest level of hygiene would be splashed across all media. “Wash your hands regularly with soap and running water, use hand sanitiser where water is not available, physical and social distance as much as you can, stay at home or work from home if you can”, the public was told.
The same message was replicated by leaders across different African countries as they each announced their first cases after.
Economic activity would be disrupted with some employers who had at the end of the previous year and start of the new year issued profit warnings and given staff notice of impending down sizing would in addition, have to grapple with the drastic measures to prevent the spread of the virus. Government offices, businesses and companies would be encouraged to allow employees stay at home, work from home and social distance with exception of those offering essential services, to keep the virus at bay.
The reality had set in with most urban dwellers afraid to leave their places of aboard, limiting human interaction and unusually (almost obsessively) using hand sanitiser at every turn – at the malls entries, inside the hyper markets, convenience and grocery stores and even at ‘mama mboga’s, the small perishable goods vendors who bring fresh food items closer to Nairobi’s urban dwellers.
In the days and weeks that followed as the #COVID19 numbers rose, most roads would increasingly become traffic jam free, train stations abandoned, airports painfully clear of tourists, PSVs drastically regulated and the crowded hustle and bustle all brought to near halt, save for cargo and fresh foods transportation. The millions who plied East Africa’s busiest city by day and night in what had come to be known as the 24 hour economy, would avoid Nairobi’s Central Business District except for those with no alternative who make no mistake are in the hundreds of thousands too.
On the flip side however, while many who could afford stayed home and social distanced, there was a section of those who would either remain distant from what fast mutated into the abnormal normal. For them, Corona Virus pandemic or not, food had to be put on the table and earnings accumulated if they were to sustain the cost of living. They would be the most vulnerable, at the bottom of the informal sector for who working from home was not only a luxury but also a slow path to hunger.
Take casual workers who toil at construction sites and are paid by the day. Any day off the work site equaled no pay at all. The cobblers and tailors at that street corner whose daily income was dependent on the crowded city’s need for fast services on the go. The hair dressers and stylists at salons who earn through commissions paid to them based on every client served and who are never remunerated when on leave be it paternity, maternity, study or any kind of leave. That farmer who’s entire earnings are dependent on middlemen who supply food stuffs to restaurants, that have scaled down operations by over 50% and won’t be able generate that income. And thousands more. For them, life must go on.
Should any government stimulus package be given, hope it reaches this particular section who if not supplemented, the corona virus preventative measures would likely birth another crisis – a hungry nation.
So What Now?
With a cure somewhere in the works, hopefully… the corona virus pandemic has no doubt discombobulated billions around the world. People previously conditioned to a structured way of life being told to adhere to set measures and guidelines like, stay at home and save lives, social distance and flatten the curve, wash your hands regularly with soap and water or use hand sanitisers to keep the virus at bay, wear a mask when out doors, work from home, pray at home and even party at home, just to mention but a few. All this, to slow the spread of the virus that had brought the entire the global economy to its knees. Never before has any workforce spent more time at home without planned leave or vacation days. Unprecedented, unbelievable and scary too!
While those with their finances in order would not bothered by the current state of affairs, the financially insecure would be worried sick of what life would be like without their daily hustle, as from it came daily relief to meet cost of living.
The Global Fight
Millions would file for unemployment as employers continued to scale down on operations around the world. Millions more worried about unpaid mortgages, stalled projects, recurrent expenses, putting food on the table while others worried about the well being of their families scattered across the world by the opportunities availed by globalisation. Thousands around the world would lose loved ones, countries human capital with no time to mourn or pay their last respects to them due to the complexities associated with COVID19. Mourning loss of lives while in the middle of a life threatening crisis meant millions partially mourned their kin as their very own lives were threatened by the virus that spread fastest in places with social gatherings. Choosing between life and death. Nothing else mattered but the fight stay alive.
In Kenya, a month after the first case was confirmed, spread of the virus was no longer being imported but communally contracted through asymptomatic carriers. A much scary situation for a virus that had no visible symptoms but dry cough, high temperature, sneezing. This would mean the public had to individually direct all effort towards containing the virus spread. It would no longer be a government-only effort. The single important message was to save lives and by extension protect livelihoods of those for a single day couldn’t afford not to go out and earn a living.
The New Abnormal Normal Reflections
“The future is digital”, a line many have heard for a while but never had we imagined a virus with flu-like symptoms as it was loosely described in the beginning, would teleport us (real fast) to the digital age. Government and parliamentary business would increasingly be conducted virtually much to the dismay of the personnel who for years have enjoyed the physical presence address system. These times are calling for minimal human interaction and increased use of technology tools for effective communication. May we embrace technology.
This is a wake up call to our government administrations to aggressively deliver on promises made to the citizens. Now is a good time for our leaders to reflect on the importance of access to clean running water not only for hand washing, but also for the millions of citizens across the African continent who have to walk miles to access this scarce commodity. While some are being told to wash hands with clean running water, the same water is a luxury for millions.
The hope is that our leaders will see how crucially important it is to have a proper functioning affordable, automated, primary and public health care infrastructure that should be patient-ready to accommodate everyone regardless of their status in society. Pre-COVID19 times saw millions travel out of their countries to more health care advanced countries where they ran to seeking medical treatment while millions of unable citizens died raising funds to access our medical facilities. What happened to the commitment made by African leaders in 2001 to allocate 15% of national budgets to health?
May these leaders we entrust with decision making in Africa think about the Water, Energy and Food (WEF) Nexus and how important it is for sustainable development.
May this also be the time someone calculates how much our governments have saved by restricting unnecessary travels abroad during these unimaginable COVID-19 times and suggest where these funds can be diverted to.
Africa’s leaders will need to think about the youth who are the majority on the continent and how this energetic population will meet the job demand from the future globalised economy and if we shall readily compete with the age of robotics, artificial intelligence, virtual intelligence – which is likely to be the future normal given how less trusting human interacting will be when this is all over.
Finally, the earth is resetting and when COVID19 is behind us whenever that will be, may the new normal find us a better people. People who understand the true meaning of co-existance with all of human nature – that earth was not only made for humans alone but also for the flora and fauna and that every single one of the things we’ve spent centuries destroying. They too deserve a place on this planet.
As we cross our fingers for the future normal, whatever that will be and however it might look like, one thing is for sure – things will never be the same again.
By Joy Doreen Biira