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COVID-19 in East Africa: communicating under lockdown

In Kenya, media trainer, Pius Sawa, is having to adjust his business practices to align with the country’s COVID-19 protection measures. Here, he details the impacts of the virus on his ability to work with young people, the effects of the pandemic for Kenya’s food and healthcare systems, and his outlook for the future.

In Kakamega, Kenya, Pius Sawa is now only working with small groups at his media studio, and ensuring masks are worn at all times © Pius Sawa

What is the current situation with regards to COVID-19 infections in Kenya and what measures are in place to safeguard the population?

It’s been one month since the government imposed a countrywide night curfew from 7 pm to 5 am, and infection rates are at less than 20 per day. These have been mostly in the capital, Nairobi, and the coastal city of Mombasa. The swift contact tracing and mandatory quarantine of all travellers from outside the country will also have helped to slow infection rates. The government has implemented another order banning people from Nairobi and Mombasa from travelling elsewhere in the country to avoid spreading the virus. This has allowed county hospitals to adequately plan for any cases that might arise and today, the hospitals are prepared, having recruited new medical personnel and supplied PPE to medical workers.

To support these measures, police are implementing the curfew and arresting people who don’t wear face masks in public or obey social distancing, as well as those travelling outside Nairobi and Mombasa. The number of people being tested has increased, and the good news is that the death rate has stagnated at 14, while the number of recoveries has risen to almost 100. However, the sudden change of lifestyle has seen many Kenyans struggling to adapt. Public transport rates have gone up as only a certain number of passengers are allowed in a car at any one time. I myself have been cut off from my family, choosing not to travel from where I work in Kakamega to where my family are based in Hamisi in Vihiga county (a 30 km distance), in case I carry the virus with me. I also cannot visit my father in the local village because he is 86 and thus considered more vulnerable to the virus.

How is it impacting on agriculture and food systems within the country?

The impact on agriculture and food systems in Kenya is not too serious at the moment. It is a relief that at least the rains are happening as usual in most parts of the country, and fresh fruit and vegetable supplies are normal. There are slight prices increases, however, due to restricted travel hours for fresh produce suppliers. For example, lorries loaded with fruit and vegetables in the evening would normally travel overnight to deliver to the market early the next morning, where the traders would receive them for sale. But since night travel is currently not allowed, the produce is received late in the day by traders, who then only have a few hours to sell it before the curfew starts, which means traders are buying less to avoid losses for produce that cannot be sold in time.

Fish supplies have also reduced, especially Chinese supplies of tilapia. And, since Uganda and Kenya have closed their borders to avoid spreading the virus, fish from Uganda has also become scarce and prices have gone up. Uganda is also the main source of eggs for western Kenya but, since the pandemic, supplies have dwindled. On a positive, milk is readily available because local farmers are continuing to supply towns and villages.

What impact is it having on your business activities and training with young people? Do you think it will change the way you work in the short/long-term?

I cannot work with young people from towns other than Kakamega where I am based. Further, the many restrictions, like wearing masks, washing hands, sanitising and observing the curfew, are not always followed by young people, which makes me more cautious.

Last week, I was arrested on the allegation of gathering a group of youths in one room, which was not true. A group asked me to help them shoot a video for a song they had produced. I agreed under the condition I used a green screen, where one person could be recorded at a time. Everyone wore a facemask and the studio space is big enough to ensure that social distancing rules can be followed.

Unfortunately, the arrest has scared many other young people who would normally wish to come and get communications assistance and media training at my studio. And, of course, they are concerned about catching the virus if they come together in groups. The situation has impacted the way I work as I now only assist small groups at a time. Many young people are eager to record songs at this time – about coronavirus in particular – but they all need support, and I cannot help all of them, which is frustrating and disappointing.

What lessons do you think Kenya has learnt from this current situation?

First, Kenyans have learned to become more economic – particularly around eating habits. We have learnt that by changing our lifestyles, we can help ensure our food security. People are eating healthier, for example, consuming lots more fresh green vegetables and less packaged and processed foods, and meat-based meals. Another lesson that can be drawn from this situation is that farmers are amongst the most important people when a pandemic occurs; they have to keep on feeding everyone and therefore, their occupation is crucial. In addition, when we see people suggesting cures for COVID-19, they talk about farm produce like, lemon, ginger and tea and, in the meantime, we are able to stock up on cereals, legumes, tubers etc. to store as the farmers carry on working.

We have also realised that we need to equip our health facilities and have trust in our hospitals and doctors. Since the virus appeared in Kenya, no one has felt the need to leave the country for foreign treatment, and this is a really positive sign.

People are also learning how to work from home. Many companies are allowing workers to operate in shifts once a week, cutting down workers’ hours and paying reduced salaries. This might become a trend for the future to help businesses cut costs and maximise their outputs.

Can you see the situation improving in the next few months?

Yes, the situation will improve in the near future, especially outside Nairobi and Mombasa. Already the government has allowed restaurants and pubs to reopen under some guidelines, while the night curfew continues alongside other rules about masks, social distancing and washing hands. As the government roles out mass testing, we hope that health facilities are now more prepared to receive cases, and help flatten the curve.

Pius Sawa

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