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#Unlockourcountry: Kenya


#Unlockourcountry: a call to President Uhuru Kenyatta

In Kenya, the first anniversary of the COVID-19 virus was "celebrated" with the entry of a new lockdown. President Uhuru Kenyatta announced a new lockdown on 26 March 2021 as the number of infections and deaths due to the virus was rising rapidly. This new lockdown generated huge reactions both offline and online.

Since the outbreak of the virus, some 149,000 infections and 2,400 deaths have been recorded in Kenya. On a scale of about 52 million people, the figures are incredibly lowFor comparison, in the Netherlands, on a scale of about 17 million people, 1,387,000 infections and 16,000 deaths have been recorded. Yet Kenya is currently under a strict lockdown similar to European countries, where corona rates are of a very different level. The recent lockdown involves a series of high-profile measures including a ban on movement, the closure of restaurants but with take-away options and an earlier curfew from 10pm to 8pm.

The impact of a lockdown on Kenyan society
About a year ago, on 13 March 2020, the COVID-19 virus was first identified in Kenya, resulting in stringent measures. Kenya was one of the first African countries to announce a partial closure of the country, impose a curfew, close schools and impose a travel ban. These measures soon created a huge burden on the formal and informal economy, as they resulted in the loss of a lot of jobs in various sectors. In addition, the measures led to a lack of basic necessities such as food and running water in many households. A sharp increase in violence and repression by the state was another consequence of the harsh measures: the Kenyan police already had a reputation for being heavy-handed but, especially in the first weeks of the first lockdown, they acted extra brutally.
One year later, on 26 March 2021, knowing what the impact of a strict lockdown does to Kenya's economy and society, President Uhuru Kenyatta again announced strict measures. Due to the huge number of unemployed and other people affected as a result of the first lockdown, these measures drew angry reactions from all corners of society. While many Kenyans did realise the severity of the virus, they were also well aware that the new measures would create additional problems as no action was taken to challenge the negative economic and social impact caused by this pandemic. The question then becomes: which is worse: the risk of dying due to the virus or the risk of dying because there is no money to pay the rent or feed your children?
This new lockdown has hefty implications and consequently caused a wide range of reactions, both offline and online. These reactions also reveal that the corona crisis is mostly used as a stepping stone to challenge the broader political system.  
Offline reaction: protests and press statement

In the offline world, these reactions were expressed in the form of protests, most of which took place during the first week of the new lockdown. On March 31, for instance, a protest was held in the Central Business District, Nairobi, where people from the entertainment industry and business community gathered to protest against the harsh measures. One of those affected by this fledgling lockdown, speaks through Citizen TV's microphone to petition the president:
'How are we supposed to pay our rent? How can we pay for our food and allowances for our children to go to school? We just sat at home for months and finally had the opportunity to reopen our business, and now everything is being dismantled again. Please President, unlock our country.'

A few days later, on 2 April, members of the Social Justice Movement (SJM) issued a press statement stating that the social and economic problems are many times bigger than the virus. On top of this, the majority of the Kenyan population does not have access to the very medical facilities that are meant to protect against the virus. Besides expressing Kenyans' displeasure, this press statement also demanded 12 areas for improvement. These include equal access to jobs for all, an end to mass unemployment, immediate end to police killings and violence as well as state repression, food supply for all, immediate lifting of the partial lockdown and curfew.  
Twitter, Facebook and YouTube as spaces for online protest
Apart from the offline protests and the statement by SJM members, the announcement of the second lockdown (26 March) also sparked uproar in the online world. On Twitter, for instance, the hashtag #unlockourcountry was created immediately after the announcement on 26 March. This used an image with the Kenyan flag and the text '#unlockourcountry we want to work to feed our families. - education, tourism, hospitality and entertainment' reference to the industries most affected by this lockdown. Therefore, at first it was mostly people from these industries; chefs, Djs, and hoteliers, who led the Twitter campaign.
In the days that followed, the hashtag #unlockourcountry remained trending on Twitter. Besides Twitter, the hashtag is also used on Facebook and Instagram and YouTube. Popular artist K. Lax, for example, recounts in his spoken word performance which can be seen on YouTube, that the pandemic is destroying a lot, but that the lockdown, curfew and the closure of many eateries is destroying a lot more. He and other performers believe there are measures that can both stop the virus without endangering jobs.
A vulgar Kenyan's life is not being played with
Clearly, the lockdown introduced by President Kenyatta has stirred up a lot in Kenya. Protests are currently ongoing and the hashtag #unlockourcountry received extra attention on 17 and 18 April. This was because at 8pm on 17 April, to teach a lesson to anyone who violated the curfew, Kenyan police had blocked major roads in Nairobi, leaving thousands of motorists but also ambulances stuck on the roads for hours. So while Kenyans are doing their best to convince political leaders of the need to reopen the country, the Kenyan police are doing their utmost to round up anyone who opposes this lockdown or violates the strict measures. For the virus, why do political leaders intervene so harshly while other causes of death get little to no attention? A question that remains unanswered for now, but playing with the lives of ordinary Kenyan citizens is not accepted by many Kenyans.

By: Racheal van Damme

Photo: Boniface Maina and Calvin Onyang'o of Dandora Community Justice Centre