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Separated By The Pandemic, United In Pain And Hope For Tomorrow

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Corrie wa Mutu dialling into her birthday celebrations with family in April; image by Kamweti wa Mutu

A lesser-known consequence of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, is the separation of African families, whose members found themselves on the wrong side of the border, just as intensive lockdown measures and border closures were imposed. We speak to two families who, while grappling with the uncertainties of the virus, are now wondering when they’ll be able to meet again.

In March, after nearly a year of battling a tough job market, Corrie wa Mutu was thrilled to begin a consultancy with an environmental NGO in rural Tanzania. Having worked on a number of development projects around the continent, the American-born agro-forestry expert relocated to Nairobi, with her husband and two young children, in 2014 from Maryland. Now 45-years-old, she claims that being based in the region, at last, was the realization of a dream, nurtured since she was a girl.

Mutu was just settling into her role when news of the first confirmed case of Covid-19 in East Africa broke. She didn’t realize it then, but her life would soon be shaken by it.

“I left Nairobi on March 2, my husband and the kids kept to their daily routines when President Kenyatta announced the first case [in Kenya]. Of course, I had planned to visit the family in Nairobi a few times during my consultancy since I would have never considered staying away for months at a time with young children,” she recalls.

It’s been over two months and Mutu has not yet returned to her children. Shortly after that announcement, a series of intensive lockdown measures were introduced, the most recent a travel ban prohibiting unauthorized movement in to, and out of, the country’s capital, where her family resides.

Kenyans wishing to return to the country must complete a compulsory two-week quarantine, at the border, before receiving official clearance to travel on to their respective towns or villages. For Mutu and her family, seeing each other again, even for a short time, meant enduring a number of bureaucratic hurdles.

“I needed to stay on as long as possible to complete as much work as I could before going back due to my family’s financial situation. If I decided to go back to visit my family, I would have to go through the minimum 14-days at the Kenyan border, find a way to exit Nairobi after my visit, and then, when I crossed back into Tanzania, I would be put in quarantine for another 14 days, at the minimum,” she explains.

Mutu was caught between a rock and a hard place. She could either brave the prospect of at least 28 days in quarantine, in order to see her family for a few days, or stay put in Tanzania, away from her young children, until her contract concluded. Inevitably, she had to choose the latter.

“Spending time in quarantine facilities in two different countries, [with] no idea what the sanitation and testing conditions would be, and not being entirely sure that I would [be able to] exit Nairobi once I got back in, meant [that] that scenario was untenable,” she continues.

Hard as that decision might have been for Mutu, it could have been for the best. In late April, reports began emerging about the conditions at Kenya’s quarantine centers. Many returned to the country, hoping to see their families sooner rather than later, but instead found themselves marooned, with little clarity on when they would be allowed to leave.

Across the border, in Tanzania, technology has had to step in so Mutu can maintain essential contact with her family. She does her best to speak to her children, who are 11 and eight years old, almost daily, checking in on whether their homework and chores are done. The family also continues to keep their weekly tradition of Bible study going every weekend. Despite the distance, the kids also managed a surprise on her birthday.

“My birthday was on the 18th of April, so the kids made me a cake. They even asked what flavors I wanted! We had a video call while they sang and blew out the candles for me. Then they got to eat it on my behalf, and I can tell you it was one of the sweetest birthday moments that I’ve ever had!”

A continent away, another African family is also making the best of the situation after being separated by the pandemic. Gifty Quainoo-Appiah, a Ghanaian entrepreneur living in London, found herself an ocean apart from her husband, who was in New York City, on business, when borders closed.

The family had been together for several months and planned to see each other again, a few weeks later, once their one-year-old daughter had her immunization records updated in the United Kingdom. They have been separated since February.

“Our relationship is based on travel. I have a business in Ghana, however, my husband, who is also Ghanaian, has business in the States, and I am based in the UK. We mostly travel back and forth between these three countries. It’s just so unfortunate that Covid-19 has come about and [it] hasn’t given us much choice in the matter. We split [briefly] and now we’re stuck in our designated countries,” she says.

The United States quickly overtook Italy’s grim record of Covid-19 fatalities, in mid-April, with New York City declared a virus epicenter soon after. Undoubtedly, the Quainoo-Appiahs have had to consider what this might mean for them but, on the whole, they remain optimistic.

“It’s unfortunate that [where my husband is] has been hardest hit and borders have been closed. I really worry about him even having to step out [of his apartment] because of this, even if he’s just going to the supermarket. It’s really difficult with such a young child and this happening so early in our marriage. We had so much to look forward to and, now, everything seems beyond our control. You can’t make any decision outside of a video call or a text message and that’s now the basis of our relationship.”

In addition to these pressures, being apart has meant that Quainoo-Appiah’s husband has had to miss some important milestones in his daughter’s life, which every parent hopes to witness and immortalize.

“He’s missed our daughter’s first steps, her first words. He even, unfortunately, missed her first birthday! So much has happened during this time that he hasn’t been there for but we are thankful for our good health,” she says.

The business in Ghana is also a concern. Around the world, countless businesses have been claimed by the pandemic. Ongoing trade and travel restrictions coupled with a decline in consumer spending have also left Quainoo-Appiah’s business vulnerable.

“The business in Ghana is unmanned. We’re fortunate enough to have my father-in-law to help manage things while we’re away. My business is in online [fashion] retail and, of course, traffic has reduced but this means I’ve had to think of marketing strategies that are out-of-the-box. We even did a campaign advertising loungewear and comfy clothes to stay indoors. It could be a lot worse, I just need to keep my customers engaged for now,’ she says.

Back in East Africa, Mutu is also helping her organization, and clients, adapt to the new climate of the virus.

“The tree-planting organization I am working with took precautions since the first confirmed case was announced [in March], especially during our seedling distribution period. All staff wear masks and keep recommended distance. Our beneficiaries enter the nursery one by one, immediately washing their hands. They are already registered with us and pick up their seedlings within a few minutes to limit contact. I am also training staff and we will also be using similar measures. It won’t be easy, but so far, the area where I am working in Tanzania has not reported many cases, so we are still proceeding, with caution.”

While the separation from her family has been difficult, Mutu has found a measure of comfort by connecting with colleagues around the continent, who are also suffering similar anxieties.

Corrie wa Mutu with community officers of the agro-foresty organisation she works for in Tanzania; image supplied

“I don’t think many people have thought about how many field workers across Africa are in similar situations. I know several, caught in countries far away from their families and having to go through self-isolation alone, not sure what will happen to their positions, or what exactly would happen if they do get sick, without their family. I have been speaking with [them] and it has been good to air feelings of frustration and uncertainty not just about returning to our home countries but also about the work we are doing.”

Both Mutu and Quainoo-Appiah have also had to get creative when connecting with their partners in order to provide much-need support and encouragement.

“I regularly check in with [my husband] to see how he is doing mentally, emotionally, and physically during what, I think, has been one of the most demanding phases of his life – playing the role of a single parent – taking care of all the housework, cooking, cleaning, kids, pets, and homework! We tend to get caught up in logistics when I call and so we’ve tried to have a weekly call where we just talk about how we are both doing with where we’re at, and the small things we can do to make life more manageable,” says Mutu.

With her husband on the other side of the Atlantic, Quainoo-Appiah has had to go the extra mile to make the most of their shorter days together.

Gifty Quainoo-Appiah with her husband at New York City’s Central Park; image supplied

“If he was [working] in Ghana, we could wake up together or go to sleep together but, with the time difference, my mornings are lonely and his evenings are lonely.”

“Sometimes, I just find myself leaving the video on in a corner of the house so he can see what we’re doing and I think that makes him feel a bit more involved. I just don’t want him to miss out on anything, even the small moments,” she confesses.

While some countries around the world have begun cautious but calibrated attempts to return to normalcy, slowly lifting restrictions and encouraging people to go back to work or school, many African nations are still bracing for the worst. But for families like Mutu’s and Quainoo-Appiah’s, the future remains worryingly uncertain, particularly with the borders between them and their loved ones firmly shut and relevant repatriation policies unannounced.

However, true to the legendary resilience of the women of this continent, they both maintain that, whatever happens, they will be with their families again.

“We have to dwell on the positives, for now, and hope that there will be many more moments in our lives that we’ll be able to experience together,” Quainoo-Appiah reflects.

Author’s note: At the time of publishing, the Kenyan government announced its intention to completely close its borders with Tanzania, where Corrie wa Mutu is based. The implementation of this closure, and its consequences on those seeking to return to the country, were yet to be established. Meanwhile, all non-essential travel to the United Kingdom was suspended from Ghana until the end of May with consular services between the two countries temporarily suspended.

– By Marie Shabaya

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Covid-19 In Kenya: ‘We Are No Longer Dreaming’

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Kamweti wa Mutu with his two children; Charlie, 11, and Adia, 8, with their Golden Retriever, Nalia, pictured at their home in Nairobi; image supplied

Kenya is perhaps one of the quieter domains of the global Covid-19 pandemic. However, as its hold intensifies across the country, Kenyans, from all walks of life, have found themselves not only preparing for the worst but also taking stock of the impact it has already had on their lives.

By his own admission, Musa Esevwe, a 49-year-old sculptor and entrepreneur, had never, in his life, experienced trouble with his sleep. That is until Covid-19 arrived in his hometown, Nairobi, in mid-March.

Within the space of a week, a national curfew was announced via Presidential address. Not long after, as confirmed cases jumped to 91, a partial lockdown was imposed around the Nairobi Metropolitan Area, restricting the movement of people in to, and out of, the city.

Travel was tightly regulated and international flights temporarily suspended. The few who do manage to make it to the country, by road or sea, must endure a mandatory two-week quarantine, at the border, before they can obtain official approval to proceed to their final destination.

Meanwhile, inside Kenya’s borders, lives changed overnight. Intensive lockdown measures severely hampered trading for both informal vendors and businesses, causing upheaval in some areas. In April, small business owners clashed with police over the forced closure of their establishments, in Nyeri, a busy provincial hub in Central Kenya.

Schools have been shut since March and, while official numbers are yet to be published, thousands have lost their jobs and livelihoods. Those, still fortunate to be in employment, have had to transform their homes into offices.

“It is like a very bad dream that we are living in now. The happiness and security we once had has gone… we are no longer dreaming, even for those who can still sleep,” says Esevwe whose own business, which was heavily dependent on the disposable income of the middle class and occasional tourists, has been destroyed by the pandemic.

Along with Esevwe, among the hardest hit are the nation’s families, who, for months now, have been confined to their houses.

The lockdown period has been particularly difficult for Kamweti wa Mutu, an international development professional and amateur nature photographer, living in Nairobi. Currently out of work, and with his wife, now the family’s sole breadwinner, stationed in Tanzania, he’s had to play multiple roles to keep his household afloat.

“The quarantine order [on March 13] was sudden, but commendably prompt, meaning it was a somewhat tough transition getting our two children; Charlie, 11, and Adia, 8, settled into home-schooling routines. After a week, we [had to] put our house-help on leave, with some pay, so as not to place [any] undue risk on either her or us,” he says.

Prior to the pandemic, Mutu was actively looking for work. However, the economic turmoil set off by the virus is now a cause for concern.

“I have struggled to find full-time employment for a while [now] but my family has been very supportive with understanding and prayers. The kids have a good grasp of this, in light of the pandemic, but it’s not [yet] getting them anxious. As a household currently on one income, this aspect is a grave one. Most worrisome is my wife losing her post [because of the pandemic], or worse, one of our family members falling ill,” he continues.

Perhaps the most traumatic impact of Covid-19 on the family is their separation. With travel into Kenya currently restricted, Mutu’s wife won’t be able to return until her consultancy with an environmental organization in Tanzania concludes.

When she does, it will probably have to be by road as international flights are suspended. After crossing the border, she’ll have to spend 14 days at a quarantine center, receiving a special permit to enter Nairobi only once she tests negative for the virus.

While this has added an extra layer of anxiety to their situation, the family is choosing to focus on the bigger picture, insists Mutu.

“We have talked a bit about this, and what it would mean for a normal life, even beyond the current situation. However, we have not delved deeply into worst-case scenarios other than how Covid-19 is devastating other families and societies. We have stocked up on enough essentials including non-perishable foodstuffs, water, face-masks, and power to last us a while.”

Elsewhere in the city, Sophie O, who asked that we change her name for this report, is also finding life under lockdown a challenge. The 30-year-old Marketing Manager works for a major multinational in Nairobi and is doing her best to adapt to the ‘new normal’ of being based from home.

“It’s been quite difficult especially because I have three children; a nine-month old, a two-year-old and a six-year-old. It’s been hard for the two-year-old to understand that I am ‘at work’, he keeps barging into [work] calls and expecting us to play. Now, I have to keep my camera off during conference calls although ideally, as a standard, it would have to be on,” she says.

With schools now closed, and most students across the country taking classes virtually, many parents, especially those with younger children, are burdened with the added responsibility of home-schooling. In this, Ms O admits that she is struggling.

“Personally, I’ve really done my best just keeping track with all the lessons they have to do. I think probably if I didn’t have to be ‘at work’, I could have done a better job in terms of being there for my daughter but it’s quite a challenge. You have to work because work pays the bills and work also pays the school fees,” she says.

Factors, firmly out of her control, are also impacting her productivity.

“The practicalities of working from home, like having a workstation, I have had to figure out. But with the internet… some days it’s good, some days it’s bad, and some days you have a blackout and there’s nothing you can do!” she laments.

The experience of both these families hints at the wider setbacks being faced by businesses and the Kenyan economy, as a whole. From Nairobi, Edwin Macharia, Global Managing Partner at multinational advisory firm, Dalberg Advisors, has been leading a fortnightly webinar series advising African leaders and policymakers on how best to respond to the ongoing crisis. He insists that they must appreciate the severity of the pandemic’s impact and act accordingly.

“Our job [on the webinar] is to make sure that [leaders] are sufficiently shaken and begin acting appropriately. China bought the world a couple of weeks to prepare and get ‘ahead of the curve’ in terms of intervention but, unfortunately, that jolt wasn’t hard enough in some places. This is very quickly moving from being a health concern to actually being an economic concern,” Macharia warned attendees in early April.

At the time, despite relatively low levels of confirmed cases, African economies were already feeling the pinch with stock markets plummeting and currencies devalued. A few weeks later, as the threat escalated, the UN Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) declared that a funding gap of $100 billion needed to be filled in order for governments to battle the pandemic, and its consequences, across the continent.

“The long-term economic effects will become more apparent in the coming months. Inputs not available locally will be inaccessible due to tighter border controls, while markets, for producers serving several industries, will be diminished, leaving many households without a sustainable income,” predicts Macharia.

If they are to have any hope of success, Macharia emphasizes that responses to Covid-19 in Africa will have to be a collaborative effort.

“Flattening the curve demands that governments, institutions, and business leaders are intentional in how they implement their response strategies. Organizations will need to go beyond [their] usual business continuity planning while the public sector needs to re-model institutions in order to slow down the current trajectory of infections while ensuring long-term resilience.”

An example of these wider response strategies are already at work in a number of Kenyan hospitals. Dr Michael Mwachiro, Secretary-General at the Surgical Society of Kenya, is currently stationed at Tenwek Hospital, a faith-based teaching and referral hospital in Bomet County, 230 kilometers west of Nairobi. On May 13, the county recorded its first Covid-19 fatality, at Longisa Hospital, the only public referral hospital in the area.

“We’re now seeing more community-transferred cases in Kenya. I think the advantage that we may have had [compared to] other parts of the world is that we were watching as things were unfolding and, because of that, we had a bit more time to prepare [as a country], and put some measures in place. But if you read the news, or listen to the radio, you’ll hear people complaining that we should have intervened earlier but that’s a difficult thing [to do] if you look at how many stakeholders are involved along with the nature of our economy and public health system,” he says.

Part of these preparations, Mwachiro says, included immediately training the country’s health workers on Covid-19 procedures along with introducing measures preventing the movement of people from hotspots in major cities into rural Kenya, where a bulk of the population lives.

“Nairobi and Mombasa already have containment measures in place. The bigger concern is that, if Covid-19 moves out of the cities to other parts of the country, the effects would be much scarier. These [rural] areas are where the older people are, who are much more vulnerable.”

In addition to the supplementary training for medical personnel, some elective procedures and non-essential surgeries have been put on hold so that all available resources can be committed to fighting the virus at hospitals. However, besides preparedness, maintaining the morale of doctors and nurses will continue to be an ongoing concern throughout the crisis.

“We’ll have to deal with the levels of anxiety and motivation experienced by healthcare workers and first responders taking care of these patients. Doctors and nurses are human, too, and they are experiencing the same emotions as everyone else. You can imagine that, in as much as [their] families are worried about them, they, too, are also worried about their families, and themselves, as well,” he says.

Some medical professionals responding to the crisis, in parts of the country, have had to make the difficult decision to live apart from their families as they work to contain the virus. But the taxing nature of their work, coupled with extended periods of isolation, means that counseling and support services will need to be made available to them as the cases continue to rise.

“We’ll have to deal with the levels of anxiety and motivation experienced by healthcare workers and first responders taking care of these patients. Doctors and nurses are human, too, and they are experiencing the same emotions as everyone else. You can imagine that, in as much as [their] families are worried about them, they, too, are also worried about their families, and themselves, as well.”

As it stands, Kenya, like most of the continent, has not been as badly hit when compared to epicenters in Europe or North America. However, this may be due to the fact that the worst is still on its way. In May, the World Health Organization estimated that up to 190,000 Africans may be killed by the pandemic, at its peak.

With Covid-19 due to exert immense pressure on our public health systems, it does offer some important lessons for the future, explains Mwachiro.

“What this outbreak has brought about, for us in Africa, is [the fact] that we need to invest more in our healthcare systems. This has been said so many times… there have even been a number of strikes [in Kenya] by various stakeholders, all of them trying to highlight these issues. This is a good wake up call. I honestly believe that, if we had spent more on health [before the crisis], it would have gone a long way in helping us to be better prepared. Hopefully, once this [pandemic] resolves, we can keep the momentum going and we can continue looking inwardly for solutions.”

Naturally, Covid-19, with its grim predictions and disruption of lives, has many Kenyans worried about the future. Nevertheless, the challenges of the moment are being met in stride. Families have quickly adjusted to new ways of living while their leaders seek sage advice on how best to address the crisis, and doctors continue to make sacrifices, day in and day out, as they brace for the worst.

Perhaps, most important of all is that, in the pandemic’s wake, hope has become an obstinate presence in all quarters of Kenyan society.

– Marie Shabaya

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