Three new hand-washing stations in front of shops in Lumakanda.

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Note: The Friends Women’s Association in Burundi has produced a wonderful three minute video on their International Women’s Day Celebration on March 8. You can view it here.

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This Report from Kenya covers the economic consequences in Kenya of the coronavirus epidemic.

The first “blow” occurred on March 7 when the government banned all international conferences. This was the beginning of the collapse of the tourist industry in Kenya. As of Wednesday this week, Kenya has banned all international airline flights. Tourism is one of Kenya’s highest foreign exchange earners. Hotels have closed and many will go bankrupt. Most employees have been laid off. It is going to take a long, long time for the tourist industry to recover. Perhaps 2019 will be the year of the world’s peak tourism.

The second industry to be hard hit was cut flower companies that mostly sell their flowers in Europe. Not only were Europeans not buying flowers, but, with the end of airline traffic to Europe, the companies had no method of transporting their flowers. Again a large number of people were laid off.

Kenya’s highest foreign exchange earner was remittances from Kenyans working overseas. Almost half of these remittances come from the United States with most of the rest coming from Europe. Because of layoffs in Kenya, the need for remittances to sustain families has increased, but the amounts being repatriated to Kenya will be decreasing.

Other major foreign exports such as tea and coffee are also going down. The result is substantial decreases in foreign exchange earnings for the country. It is these earnings that allow Kenya to import all the goods that it does not manufacture itself. Much of this comes from China which normally sends five container ships to Kenya per month. No ships from China have arrived in the port of Mombasa in February or March. This is going to lead to a shortage of consumer goods. So far I have not noticed any major out-of-stock items, but this could soon become substantial. As China recovers from the virus, shipping will probably increase, but will Kenya than have the money to pay for the goods?

On the other hand, since Kenya imports all its oil needs, the collapse of oil prices will bring some relief to Kenya. I doubt, though, this can compensate for all the declines mentioned above.

This has already been reflected in the fact that the value of the Kenyan shillings has declined about 5% against the US dollar this month. This is of major concern because the current Kenyatta government has gone on a major borrowing spree and most of this has to be repaid in US dollars. As the shillings declines, it means that more shillings are going to be needed to cover these payments. This also leads to inflation for all imported items so people are able to buy less with the same amount of money.

On March 16 schools were closed. Parents, if they were still working, had to figure out how to take care of their children. Many of those in Nairobi and other cities sent their children to their grandparents or other relatives in the countryside.

Members of public with travel bags at Western bound bus terminus awaiting transport. The move is occasioned by coronavirus scare. [George Njunge/Standard] Notice how young these travelers are.

Most of the current 31 confirmed cases of coronavirus with 1 death have occurred in Nairobi or on the coast near Mombasa. Due to the fact that the health care systems are better in the cities than the rural countryside, the government wants people to stay in the cities. Moreover if coronavirus positive people migrate to the countryside taking the disease with them, the countryside, where most elderly people live, would have a much higher death rate than the younger population in the cities. Nonetheless people are fleeing the cities for their rural homes. If people have lost their jobs – and 80% of Nairobians work on a hand-to-mouth day-by-day basis –, they have no means to buy food. If they go upcountry to their original homestead, they will at least have food to eat. People are also fleeing Nairobi because of fear of catching coronavirus.

Mama Mboga (Mama Vegetables) selling their greens and vegetables in the middle of town in the afternoon. Since people do not have refrigerators, they need to buy their greens and other fresh food items every couple of days. If this type of selling is banned, which it may well be if the situation deteriorates more, people will have great difficulty eating their normal foods. The basket of greens in the front is collard greens which is eaten with ugali (maize meal) daily by most Kenyans.

Here is the irony of the economic situation. All that I have mentioned above is in the formal Kenyan economy connected to the world economy. As I have reported here, here, and here, the rural Kenyan economy is mostly self-staining and outside the formal economy. Because of this the rural countryside’s economy is not going to be nearly as severely impacted by the coronavirus epidemic. People will continue to survive as they always have, planting their crops, taking care of their animals, producing needed items, and constructing buildings. Shops are open and the women continue selling their fruits and vegetables.

What has changed here in Lumakanda is the closing of schools, the end of church services, restrictions on weddings and funerals to 15 people, and each shop setting up its hand washing station. On my morning walk to get the newspaper, I find the town quite deserted. During my afternoon walk, the town has more people. Yet there is a lot of space so physical distancing is observed without even much intention.

No confirmed cases of coronavirus have been reported in western Kenya, including Lumakanda. All suspected cases have ended up being negative. I have yet to see anyone wearing a mask. People, though, have stopped shaking hands and now give fist or elbow “shakes.” I myself have stopped shaking hands with all the toddlers I pass on my walks who find it exciting to greet an mzungu (as I am the only white person in town).  

While the news is full of information about coronavirus, the locust plague, which continues and increases as new swarms are formed, is receiving scant publicity. Some of the measures to curtail the spread of the locusts have been discontinued.

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David Zarembka

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