During the first week of March, 1.02 million doses of the Astra-Zeneca Covid-19 vaccine arrived in Nairobi. These doses were earmarked first for health care workers, with other recipients being added rapidly. This was the first shipment of the 3.56 million dose allotment designated for Kenya through the World Health Organization’s COVAX collaboration. (Read more about COVAX here.) Because Kenya has a population of 52.5 million people, officials feel it might take years to reach herd immunity to Covid-19.
Several obstacles have slowed the pace of the vaccine roll-out. In addition to logistical rough patches, the availability of the vaccine is not widely known. Some folks—like diplomats—have jumped the queue. And there appears to be significant ‘vaccine hesitancy’ from people who feel leery about taking the jabs. The fact that politicians at the upper levels of Government have not taken their vaccines has contributed to this reluctance. In order to combat this hesitation, Kenya’s president recently mandated that the entire cabinet receive the Covid vaccination. In addition, some non-profits have begun rolling out public relations campaigns to encourage vaccinations.
Leaders in the Friends Church have shown the way in encouraging Friends to not delay their jabs. Now that older Kenyans (58 and older) are eligible to be vaccinated, as well as some additional categories (like pastors), FUM Africa Ministries Director John Muhanji and FWCC–Africa Section Secretary Bainito Wamalwa have led by example.
The vaccine is arriving at a time when Covid cases in Kenya are rising quickly. Kenya’s virus positivity rate has jumped to 19%, from the 2.6% positivity rate at the beginning of January. This alarming increase has led to another partial shutdown in Kenya. On March 26, the President announced that Nairobi county and four surrounding counties would be locked down. No one is allowed in or out by rail, air, or road. There are some allowances for tourists who are arriving and departing to or from other parts of Kenya. The curfew is lengthened in these counties, and gatherings of any kind are absolutely prohibited. In the rest of Kenya, the size of funerals, weddings, and church services has been limited. All schools are closed nationwide. (Find out more about recent Covid cases in Kenya here).
The impact of this new lockdown is felt deeply by the Friends churches in Nairobi and surrounding counties, as no gatherings are allowed. There will likely be a move back to online services for those who have the technology. Churches in other counties are required to have no more than 30% capacity.
These new measures also impact Friends Theological College, in both Kaimosi and the various satellite campuses throughout Kenya. Residential students had just departed FTC-Kaimosi for the April break. Modular students—including students from Turkana, Samburu, and Tanzania—were preparing to arrive on campus on Sunday, March 28. Of course, these Friends have already been delayed in their education.
Primary and secondary school closures are also felt deeply, as schools had just ramped back up in January. Thankfully, school children had just started a six-week break as the lockdown was announced. Hopefully, schools will be able to open again in time for the scheduled beginning of term.
Friends in Tanzania are reeling from the loss of their country’s popular president, John Magufuli. Some suspect Magufuli’s death was caused by Covid. President Magufuli was an outspoken Covid denier, and refused to conduct Covid testing or report on Covid cases. Finally, in February of this year, Tanzania put some Covid restrictions in place.Although the depth of Covid’s impact in Tanzania is still unknown (read more about Covid in Tanzania here), many Tanzanians are grieving and suffering.
As in Kenya, the Ugandan government has worked hard to provide safe guidelines and has taken actions to stop the spread of Covid. Unfortunately, the post-election violence that Uganda experienced disrupted some of the country’s good work at mitigating the virus. Uganda began vaccinations at a similar time to Kenya. (Read more about vaccination in Uganda here.)
We don’t know exactly how many Friends have been lost to Covid here in East Africa. Likely it is more than reported, as many who fall ill are not tested for Covid. No matter the cause, there have recently been some very significant losses among Friends’ leaders here. The government has required that the remains of Covid victims must be buried within seventy-two hours of death. Funerals are usually an important community event for Kenyans. Without proper funerals, people find it difficult to pay respects to the deceased’s friends and family, which leaves mourners feeling incomplete, and left at loose ends in their relationships. These truncated observances add to the uneasiness and anxiety surrounding this pandemic.
Yet East African Friends are resilient, and lean heavily on the grace of God. Mature believers remind us that God is our hope, that we can find guidance in scripture, and that we are stronger in working together as the Body of Christ. The Quaker fraternity, as it is referred to, is a source of strength and hope for Friends and their neighbors.
Continue to pray for Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania, as well as all of Africa, as suffering and loss of income continue and grow. Pray that there is a way forward for more vaccines to come to Africa, and that the inequity of the vaccination process in our world would move toward favoring those with fewer resources. Pray that Friends can shine the True Light in this time that feels particularly dark. And let us pray for a spirit to stand strong in the midst of overwhelming grief.