Commuters waiting to board a matatu in total disregard for social distancing rules.

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Unmasking Covid-19 pain: Year Kenyans wish to forget

On March 13, 2020, Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe descended the steps of Afya House and dropped a bombshell: Kenya had recorded its first coronavirus case.

“The Ministry of Health has confirmed a coronavirus disease (Covid-19) case in Nairobi. The case, which was confirmed on the 12th March 2020…is a Kenyan citizen who travelled back to Nairobi from the United States of America via London, United Kingdom, on the 5th March 2020. She was confirmed positive by the National Influenza Centre Laboratory at the National Public Health Laboratories of the Ministry of Health. The patient is clinically stable, and is being managed at the Infectious Diseases Unit at the Kenyatta National Hospital,” the CS said.

What followed was confusion and uncertainty as the country battled with a novel pandemic it was ill prepared for and had little knowledge about. There was panic: schools closed, businesses shut, flights were grounded and the economy took a slippery path to a slump.

Nairobi caught the virus first, sneezed and all facets of the economy caught cold: business revenue fell, followed by layoffs, pay cuts, loan defaults, deaths and infections.

The government, keen to stem the wave of infections, issued stay-at-home orders for non-essential workers and the counties of Nairobi, Mombasa, Kilifi and Kwale later went into a partial lockdown.

Revenue targets

Before long, everybody realised that the economy runs like one fine thread that keeps unravelling but ties all sectors together. From street children in frantic search for non-existent leftovers because of closed restaurants to government failing to meet revenue targets because of shut businesses, the Covid-19 pain went beyond the daily deaths and infections.

A health crisis quickly morphed into an economic crisis that may take years to heal from.

CS Kagwe confirms the first coronavirus patient in Kenya

“Covid-19 started as a health crisis, became an economic crisis and then a humanitarian crisis. We have to prevent it from ending in a financial crisis,” said James Mwangi, CEO of Equity Group.

The year 2020 became the ‘lost” year, especially for education institutions. The pandemic threw the education sector into chaos turning the year into the most challenging for learners, teachers, parents and other education stakeholders.

For the first time since the 8-4-4 curriculum was started in 1985, students did not sit for national exams. Learners also had to stay at home for more than nine months. Unlike previous years, schools had to be shut abruptly on March 15, to protect children from being infected with the virus.

The schools were scheduled to open in May for the second term but the date was considered unsafe as parents and education stakeholders feared for the safety of the children.

Opening of schools was left to be determined by the infection trends.

The pandemic exposed the gap between the public schools and private schools as education stakeholders called on the government to digitally equip teachers and schools in public schools to embrace digital learning in schools.

Despite teachers, especially those in private schools, engaging learners in online classes to keep them studying, over 15 million learners in public schools could not access learning.

Private schools engaged their pupils in digital classes while others resulted in sending assignments on emails and WhatsApp platforms.

Digital classrooms

Even though the government, through the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development, rolled out broadcast lessons through radio and TV, teachers termed the programme ineffective.

Public schools teachers complained that they did not have enough equipment to enable them to roll out digital classrooms. This is despite the schools having been supplied with close to one million laptops to enhance digital learning. The laptops are lying idle in most schools.

An effort by the government to roll out community-based programmes across the country also failed after a parent moved to court to stop it.

The programme had been designed by the education committee on Covid-19 pandemic to engage learners in their estates and villages to stop them from being idle.

Due to the long break, a large number of pupils and students were reported to engage in drug abuse and sex, leading to teenage pregnancies.

Dozens of children were busted by the police in a house in Nairobi and other towns allegedly engaging in sex and taking drugs and alcohol and making pornographic videos.

Thousands of girls have been reported to be pregnant as a result of the long break.

In an effort to salvage the ‘lost’ year and safe learners from repeating classes, Education Cabinet Secretary George Magoha appointed a Covid-19 National Education Response Committee to review and organize the school calendar.

Later Prof Magoha announced the opening of Grade 4, Standard 8 and Form Four students in October 2020. The other learners reported in January this year.

Prof Magoha issued the revised 2020 to 2023 school calendar that will see learners engage in a crash programme.

Apart from creating chaos in the society, there were more cases of gender-Based violence during the pandemic lockdowns. According to data released by the Kenya Red Cross Society call centre, stress, family and marital issues seem to have topped the issues reported, mostly by women. Between March and December 2020, there was a noted increase in sexual and gender-based violence.

Majority of the callers, 502, reported having stress while 466 reported family and marital issues.

Dr Oscar Githura, a forensic psychologist, says that the world was where we have never been before and confinement is not really what the human situation calls for.

“Confinement normally brings tension and putting people in one place for a long time does not give us the time to cool off. If a couple has a disagreement and they cannot go and talk to people who will help them cool down, they are having a pressure cooker effect which builds but and causes violence,” he said.

Another study by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics in October 2021 showed that 23.6 per cent of Kenyans have witnessed or heard cases of domestic violence in their communities since the introduction of Covid-19 containment measures.

The national GBV hotline, 1195, received 810 cases in September, compared with 646 cases in August, an increase of 25 per cent. All cases received psychosocial first aid and referral services.

This prompted a directive by President Uhuru Kenyatta to the National Crime Research Centre to investigate rising reports of domestic violence against women and girls including rape, domestic violence, and female genital mutilation and child marriages as a result of the restrictions.

He also directed that the violators be prosecuted immediately.

“We must always remember that the family is a projection of the State. If the family is under attack, the State is under attack. If the family is weak, the country is weak,” Kenyatta said in a televised address.

With bookshops, school uniform suppliers, publishers, hostels and suppliers were shut down with some opting to shift their focus to other businesses.

The investors and suppliers depended on schools to supply school uniforms, books, cereals, lab equipment, soap among other school related necessities.

Hostels, which majorly depend on university and college students have also been struggling to resume business as most institutions of higher learning are still engaging students in virtual lessons.

More than 300 private schools shut their doors affecting some 56,000 learners according to the Kenya Private Schools Association chief executive Peter Ndoro.

The schools closed because they lacked the funds to prepare their institutions for safe reopening in line with the Ministry of Education's guidelines on the reopening while others were unable to pay rent.

Some of the schools turned their premises to other businesses while others have rented them out as they did not have finances to manage them.

President Uhuru's address on Covid-19 situation in the country

Debts ran high, both for the country and households. Data from the Central Bank of Kenya (CBK) shows that gross non-performing loans -- credit for which principal or interest has not been paid for 90 days or more— hit Sh403.9 billion in October, up from Sh349.9 billion in February 2020 despite banks having allowed customers to extend repayment periods on loans worth Sh1.38 trillion by end of October, an equivalent of 46.5 percent of Sh2.97 trillion total loan book.

The National Treasury downgraded the growth forecast to 0.6 per cent, the lowest in 12 years.

Businesses in sectors such as hospitality, horticulture, education, media, aviation and manufacturing have had to issue pay cuts, retrenchments and unpaid leaves as their earnings tumbled.

Covid-19-induced economic downturn has seen an estimated 1.72 million workers lose jobs in three months to June alone.

The ability of those who had borrowed on the strength of payslips to service loans has been tested and found wanting and banks have taken the painful decision to increase provisions for defaults.

Those whose livelihoods were hinged on exports of goods such as flowers, coffee, tea and avocado, the clear skies soon became dark clouds. They lost their jobs.

Firms operating in export processing zones shed 8,135 jobs in the financial year ended June as the pandemic disrupted export markets forcing them to trim their workforce as sales dipped.

“(The job losses are) attributed to scaling down of operations by EPZ firms due to adverse impact of Covid-19 in Financial Year 2019/20,” said the State Department of Trade

Many high-end hotels which had depended on business people for survival soon found the going tough. Sales were simply not coming.

While about 96 percent of the hotels have reopened, bed occupancy is still at a paltry 23 percent. Other sectors will have to pick up in order to put money in people’s pockets before hotels can see a recovery.

From Wuhan where it all started, to the US and Europe which have borne the brunt of deaths, infections and economic disruption, a vaccine is here.

Yesterday President Uhuru Kenyatta expressed hope for a rebirth while announcing the extension of measures to keep infections low and revive the economy. We remain unbowed, he said.

Reporting by Angela Oketch, Patrick Alushula and Faith Nyamai