COUNTERPRODUCTIVE

COLLINS AJUOK: How Covid curfew kills enterprise, spreads despondency

Widespread poverty is already a national security challenge before you throw in a depressing curfew whose end isn’t in sight

In Summary

• It is easy to understand the frustrations of small business owners, who have to give up the nocturnal industrial complex, under the weight of Covid-19 restrictions.

• It is hard to see how night closures help is curbing virus spread, if the industries and businesses are allowed to operate by day, the exact same way they would by night

Boda boda operators wait for customers during curfew hours in Bamburi, Mombasa county.
CURFEW Boda boda operators wait for customers during curfew hours in Bamburi, Mombasa county.
Image: JOHN CHESOLI

Arriving late in my home city Kisumu recently, I found myself having to drive around in the night looking for the local delicacy, tilapia.

When I finally got lucky, finding a late night joint that offered the meal, I ended up on deserted streets, heading back home. The silence and abandoned streets were absolutely ghostly.

On any given day, Kisumu’s bus park, lively pubs, eateries and Ohangla music halls provide the best evidence of humanity’s ability to operate without sleep in pursuit of a livelihood. Yet these days, the town goes to sleep at 10pm.

This city is situated right in the middle of an industrial graveyard. From Muhoroni and Chemelil Sugar factories, to Kisumu Cotton Mills, from the Ahero Irrigation Scheme to the collapsed fish processing plants, this is the city puts on a brave face, and deserves to hang onto every enterprise and cent it can.

It is easy to understand the frustrations of small business owners, who have to give up the nocturnal industrial complex, under the weight of Covid-19 restrictions.

In a strict sense, it is hard to see how night closures help advance prevention measures, if the industries and businesses are allowed to operate by day, the exact same way they would by night.

For instance, the ban on night travel makes no sense in a country where night travel and urban public bus parks employ a huge number of people. A combination of those transport operators, pub workers, low end traders and the folks that drive the economy of the night, form too big a work force to no longer be ignored.

There is a ripple effect to this, and the school curriculum crash programme provides just a little reference point.

In an attempt to recover the time lost from a year-long Covid-imposed schools closure, the Ministry of Education has rolled a calendar that can get you dizzy at times.

With short breaks in between a blitzkrieg of school terms, the children seem to walk in and out the next moment. Before you can finish reading the last fee structure, they are back with a new one, and opening day is just the following week!

Caught up in this rollercoaster of emotions, financial pressure and despondency are the millions of parents whose jobs have disappeared with the curfews and the shutdown of night business. It is not like there is any relief package forthcoming from the state.

To its credit, the government seems determined to ramp up vaccinations and cover as many people as possible. A more creative Ministry of Health would by now be proposing a “green card” where those who are fully vaccinated can reopen their businesses, or partake of the pleasures of pubs, without curfew.

In a practical sense, there is really no compelling economic reason for the roughly two per cent of fully vaccinated Kenyans to wait for the other 98 per cent before resuming normal lives.

A green card that gives a pass to fully vaccinated people to resume near normal lives provides a very motivating reason for higher and faster vaccine intakes.

Fans of the popular English Premier League have no doubt been watching the full stadia in the first three weeks of the new season with much envy. In our own small way, we should encourage a level of economic activity that rises with the vaccine levels. Another angle to all this obviously has to do with politics.

The longer the curfew goes, the more it perpetuates a narrative by one side of the political divide about the have and the have-nots. I am certain that many aspirants for high office aligned with the state must worry about the effect of a long drawn night curfew.

The high cost of living is a credible electoral theme, and where the state is seen to be detached from the suffering of the common man, those running as its friends usually carry the burden on their backs.

With an election that gets closer by the day, I can’t see how the story of the curfew and its effects will escape being a headline issue. Of course, the bigger story is that these stringent conditions have helped arrest the spread of a dangerous virus. But the reason you meet so many ordinary Kenyans on the street declaring that they would rather die of Covid-19 than hunger is because some of the industries that are collapsing under the weight of the restrictions will never really recover their operational status.

In a way, some of the damage is permanent. What a shame.

It gets worse when you consider how many people have lost their lives in the hands of the police ostensibly to enforce the curfew. Because there will always be bad apples within the police service, the country is reeling from fresh rounds of extra judicial killings committed in the name of curfew enforcement.

As if you needed any more reason to make the curfew more unpopular. The combination of biting restrictions, dying businesses and a trigger happy section of the police service is one no Kenyan bargained for. We have now accepted that Covid-19 will be with us for a very long time. This should indeed have formed our realisation that restriction measures are no longer 60-day issues and certainly nothing to do with terse statements from the lawns of State House!

This week, the children returned to school from a quick-fire mid-term break. They will be back in about four weeks for a one-week break before schools reopen for the second term of a delayed calendar.

More and more households will feel the burden of these transitions for as long as businesses haven’t returned to normalcy. There must be a way to keep alive and feed our families at the same time. The problem for all of us and especially with the Ministry of Health is that statistics in this country tends to be a monologue.

When former New York Governor Andrew Cuomo became the star of TV Covid-19 statistics, he captured all angles, ranging from infection percentages, fatalities, recoveries, status of hospitals and the state of the economy in his state.

This way, one could easily discuss mitigating measures to not just save the lives of those who had come into contact with the virus, but the bigger population that hadn’t.

It is time for those who crunch the numbers at the Ministry of Health and State House to consider all the figures, go beyond the virus itself down to the effects of the curfew on a delicate economy and save the larger population from falling prey to the vagaries of a stubborn pandemic.

Widespread poverty is already a national security challenge before you throw in a depressing curfew whose end isn’t in sight.