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Why Covid -19 curfew should end

During the day, very little will tell you we are living in odd times.

What is evident is seeing pedestrians on streets with masks strapped loosely against their chins, pulling them up once in a while to avoid the occasional worrisome eyes of the police.

Also noticeable along the streets are hand washing units that have run into disuse, and posters cautioning people to maintain social distance.

A lot has changed since Covid-19 was first reported in early March 2020. At that time, the country was scared stiff and thousands lost jobs as the deadly virus that hit the globe came at an enormous economic price.

In 2020, starting from the second quarter of the year, the country just about scraped a living.

Government data showed that about 1.7 million people lost their jobs with the unemployment rate standing at high 10.4 per cent in the second quarter. However, in the third quarter, the unemployment rate came down to 7.2 per cent after the strict containment measures were partially lifted, sparking a flurry of economic activities.

During the dark period, schools were closed for almost the entire year. The education sector continued its negative performance with the sector contracting by 42 per cent in the third quarter compared to a growth of six per cent in the third quarter of 2019.

Laxity

But a lot of that strict control measures has slowly disappeared with time, with days spent more or less the same way they were before the pandemic, and political rallies are full throttle. However, the nights have a palpable difference though; there is a 10pm to 4am curfew. It’s now 317 days since the curfew was introduced in late March 2020.

Whether the curfew is serving its purpose has elicited a debate, with some calling for its removal while proponents of the same put up a case to defend it.

In his last address on Covid-19 protocols, the President Uhuru Kenyatta extended the curfew to March 12, and in the same breath banned rallies and other political gatherings.

When the first coronavirus cases were confirmed in Kenya in March 2020, the government closed schools, imposed a curfew, banned public gatherings and at one point restricted movement in and out of the most-affected regions.

The big debate now is; has covid-19 lockdown served its purpose. Is it time to end it? Kenyans are divided on whether or not to lift the Covid-19 curfew.

As it stands, the country has recorded more than 100,000 cases of the disease, with 1,774 cumulative deaths. However, in the past weeks, the positivity rate has been going down, offering the country glimpses of hope.

Yet, the risk remains, especially with incidences of new variants and fears that the government does not have a true picture of the rate of transmission.

Growth numbers

Businesses badly hit by the restrictive actions are now showing growing opposition to the measures.

Kenya posted back-to-back negative growth in the second and third quarters. The latest data from the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) showed that the economy contracted by 1.1 per cent between July and September 2020.

Activities related to accommodation and food service contracted by 83.2 per cent between April and July 2020. A slower contraction of 1.1 per cent in quarter three compared to 5.5 per cent recorded in the previous quarter was an encouraging sign of a recovery.

Banks, however, experienced a surge in bad debt, which reached Sh423 billion in December as borrowers struggled to service their loans. This followed the end of a repayment holiday granted to soften the blow of Covid-19. The Sh423 billion was 14.1 per cent of banks’ total loan book that stood at Sh3 trillion, according to the Central Bank of Kenya (CBK).

The gloomy economic numbers showed a struggling economy that forced the State to relax some of the rules which helped lift the burden off Kenyans back in the third quarter of the year.

But pubs remained closed after 10pm, with neighbourhoods that were known for their nightlife now going absurdly quiet minutes past 9.30pm. Months ago, when the curfew was dusk to dawn, the nightlife was completely dead.

Kenya Association of Manufacturers Chief Executive Phyllis Wakiaga says that when the pandemic hit, manufacturers were given protocols from the government in anticipation of disruption of activity and were, therefore, braced for it, and managed to operate in accordance with the guidelines.

While recognizing that the organisation’s members understood the government’s commitment to curbing the spread of Covid-19, Wakiaga said that some manufacturers had nonetheless been affected by the restrictions imposed.

KAM is taking an assessment of the industry to determine the extent of slowdown for various manufacturers in the sector.

East African Breweries Limited has, as a result of the closures among other measures put in place to curb the spread of Covid-19, suffered a blow as the sale of its products tanked.

Nearly half of the brewer’s net profits were wiped out in the first six months of the year to December 31, 2020. Net sales for EABL, which is controlled by British alcohol giant Diageo, fell by three per cent.

Simon Kimutai, chairman of the Matatu Owners Association, notes that the effects of the curfew on the matatu sector are devastating, leaving those who earn their living from the business struggling to make ends meet.

“Our work is to facilitate movement, so a big part of this is limited by the time restriction imposed. Nairobi was almost becoming a 24-hour economy but now, people are so afraid that they leave their places of work and other visited places by 7pm,” Kimutai says.

According to Kimutai, the curfew has reduced the number of people using matatus because it has slashed the number of trips a matatu can make as it attempts to earn its keep.

“I would advocate for lifting of the curfew. There are all sorts of gatherings going on. We can’t pretend that everyone is in their houses by 10pm. There is no point in the curfew because Kenyans are not even observing social distance, so why cut travel hours when we would be making our income.”

Kimutai is also upset that the curfew has seen a 40 per cent loss of revenues hit the matatu industry.

“If a matatu used to make say Sh20, 000 gross income monthly, a 40 per cent reduction means that the same vehicle will make only Sh12,000, yet the operational costs remain the same. Payment of the staff and maintenance costs remain.”

 Six hours of curfew has also snatched away the business of the nightlife and Caroline Njeri, who owns a household items’ shop at Hunters, Kasarani, has now gotten used to closing her shop at 9pm.

“I used to open the shop up to 11pm. People were streaming in that late, but now I have to make my way home earlier because, by 9pm, people have bought what they need for the night and are indoors.”

It is not only the entertainment business that has been affected. Daniel Tanui, the Managing Director of Mitchell Cotts, says that there has been a slowdown in activity due to the curfew. Mitchell Cotts is an out of gauge cargo handling firm.

“We were used to operating 24 hours a day, and therefore it has been very challenging for us. If the country opened up, it would be good for our business,” he explained.

Matatu Owners Association chairman (MOA) Simon Kimutai on March 31, 2015. [File]

But Mr Tanui is okay with the curfew if it serves to shield Kenyans from their own carelessness and minimizes the spread of Covid-19.

Recklessness

“I think bars are the reason why some of these restrictions remain in place. There comes a point in the night when revellers throw caution to the wind and in this recklessness, rules such as social distancing are not applied anymore. If reducing the hours’ people are allowed to be in these joints minimizes the danger, then the curfew is alright,” he says.

However, Mr Tanui feels that it beats sense to have such precautions late in the night if during the day people continue to behave carelessly. The perennial political gatherings, which often attract thousands of Kenyans who barely adhere to social distancing protocols and mask-wearing, mean that the gains of the night are gobbled up by the loose restrictions during the day.

Richard Muteti, the Chief executive of Kenya National Federation of Jua Kali Associations (KNFJKA) agrees with Mr Tanui.

Small traders whose businesses thrived by the dark have had it rough as they are forced indoors earlier than they would have liked.

“A lot of our small traders used to move their goods overnight. Some food stores also operated almost all night long. Many women used these proceeds to pay fees for their children. How will they survive?”

Muteti wonders how people would be denied the luxury to work at night while there are endless political rallies that defies all the restrictions.

“A lot of money that could be moving around in the night is not. These small traders have closed their workshops. But ironically, it is in their workplaces that politicians bring their rallies in the day, disrupting activity and endangering the workers’ lives,” Muteti says.

Kevin Mubadi, Boda Boda Safety Association chairman, says that while the majority of bodaboda riders are not affected (they close their business late evening) traders who had started working two jobs are suffering.

“The infections are not as many as used to be last year, and the president would do well to open the economy up for us. It will help people, as some have even opted for more than a job to supplement their dwindling incomes,” he said.

But like Tanui, he feels that the tendency of partygoers to throw caution to the wind as the night wears out might be the reason why the government is strict on the curfew.

Kenyan artistes have been lobbying the President to reopen the country, as most of them banked on entertainment joints to make their livelihoods.

In an open letter at the start of the year, Kevin Mbuvi Kioko, also known as Bahati, asked the Head of State to be mindful of artists who earned a living through performances and public gatherings.

“Your Excellency I don’t know if in your cabinet there’s anyone who cares about the Creative Industry; the DJs, event organizers, or anything concerning the Entertainment Industry. But if you keep locking down the economy and limiting events that we fully depend on that’s simply killing our careers,” wrote the artiste.

 As the country continues to struggle to overcome the shockwaves of Covid-19 amid the anticipation of vaccines starting this month, Stanbic Bank’s PMI (Purchasing Managers Index) report indicated that business confidence, in December, slipped below November’s previous record low at the end of the year.

 When schools were opened last month, after a hiatus almost running into a year, fears were that it would be close to impossible to control learners from mingling in a manner that would put them at risk of spreading Covid-19.

However, there has been a sustained success in curbing the spread of the virus in schools, with authorities lauded for enforcing adherence of guidelines from the government.

National Parents Association chair Nicholas Maiyo says that school boards took it and decided to manage the situation, setting up handwashing stations, enforcing the wearing of masks and reminding learners to observe hygiene.

“But our day scholars are very exposed, actually more than our borders. Out here, parents will be everywhere, from the market places to political gatherings, with no masks on, and will even strut around the house without wearing masks. Children copy what they see, and they do not wear masks out here.”

Maiyo, however, supports the six-hour curfew saying that late nights account for a lot of recklessness that goes on, and that they are the worst spreaders of the virus.

Covid 19 Time Series

 

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