Back in February and for years before, around the Giseminti-Remera suburb of Kigali, partying was order of night and day. It is a spot dotted with hundreds of bars, restaurants and lodges. It is one of many such spots around Kigali.
On March 22, a week after the first COVID-19 case had been identified in Rwanda, a national lockdown was imposed. Since then, up to date, while many sectors have been opened, the bars are by existing regulations – still closed.
Every month for the past five months, the local government ministry and police, say more than 1,900 bars are busted across the country while working illegally. As expected, the owners are heavily fined, revellers too – and the bars locked up with government padlocks.
While the bar is drinking place for revellers, it is a workplace for many. Those who worked there are today struggling to even put food on their tables because that place of work has been no more, and may remain so for quite some time.
Umbereye Mumino worked at one of the spots inside the Radisson Blu Hotel & Convention Centre, Kigali. With a monthly take home of Rwf 80,000, it covered several of her needs. It has been months without any income.
“Up to now, there has been no single support from any government agency. I know COVID-19 is a problem but our plight should also be a priority for those who take these decisions. I want to go back to work,” she said.
According to the August update of the quarterly Labour Force Survey by the National Institute of Statistics (NISR), more than 96,500 people were employed by bars and similar spots serving alcohol. This is about 3.4% of the national workforce.
Data shared by the UK High Commission in Kigali with government in June shows that for the two months of the national lockdown, at least 60% of Rwandans or nearly 8million Rwandans lost their entire livelihoods. Basically, many of these people dropped from having too little already, to having to depend on food aid.
The bartenders are among those who have been worst affected.
Nyinawumuntu Epfrosine worked at a hotel bar in Rwamagana district. Before her workplace was closed like with all bars, Nyinawumuntu had acquired a bank loan which she has not serviced for all these months.
“For sure, how do you expect me to ever be able to repay that loan, when getting food is such a headache,” said Nyinawumuntu.
With the pain of staying unemployed all this time, has come lessons for many affected. Manzi Kelly was working at bar in Bugesera district. Like everyone else we interviewed, he said he had learnt a lesson to always save money.
A notable impact of the coronavirus on the bars and hospitality industry, is that the vast majority of people employed there are women. While everyone is facing unprecedented challenges, women are bearing the brunt of the economic and social fallout of COVID-19.
Women are losing their jobs. The pandemic and measures to prevent its spread are driving a disproportionate increase in women’s unemployment (as compared to men) and also decreasing their overall working time.
The recently released UN Women’s report shows that the pandemic will push 96 million people into extreme poverty by 2021, 47 million of whom are women and girls. This will bring the total number of women and girls living on USD 1.90 or less, to 435 million.
The report also said pandemic-induced poverty surge will also widen the gender poverty gap – meaning, more women will be pushed into extreme poverty than men. This is especially the case among those aged 25 to 34, at the height of their productive and family formation period.
In 2021, it is expected there will be 118 women aged 25 to 34 in extreme poverty for every 100 men aged 25 to 34 in extreme poverty globally, and this ratio could rise to 121 poor women for every 100 poor men by 2030.
During our probe for this story, we also encountered Uwineza Mireille and Asifiwe Uwamahoro – who were both employed as bartenders. Uwamahoro for her part decided to return to her village.
Uwineza says the money she had, got finished and opted to return to her parents home because she could no longer afford paying rent. “There was no help from any local authority,” she said.
This festive season would have been a time to earn big for bars and restaurants. While the latter can operate with strict control measures in place, the government has kept the bars closed.
Local government minister Prof Anastase Shyaka, while explaining the government’s decision to not allow bars to open, and daily arrests of those who try to open them, said the drinking places can be the biggest super spreaders and government cannot take that risk to let them operate.
“It is impossible to observe the standard operating procedures in an environment where alcohol is being consumed. There will be social distance between people on their first drink, and then they will be knocking heads with no masks in the coming hours,” said Shyaka at joint appearance with other ministers last week.
Well-meaning restaurant and bar owners insist they have complied scrupulously with health and safety measures, but there is no getting away from the fact that a business where people must remove their masks in order to eat or drink, has increased infection rates. While no local scientific study has been done on the danger of bars, globally many such studies exist.
At the aggregate level, the first study to portray the obvious correlation between restaurant openings and the spread of COVID-19 was published in June by Johns Hopkins University, using data on credit card spending by 30 million customers in the United States and correlating it to the evolution of the pandemic in each state. The relationship was clear: the more spending on restaurants, the greater the number of infections. This data was first reported by Forbes.
That study was followed by another, carried out by Stanford University and published on November 10. Using a very different methodology, the outcome was nevertheless the same: researchers tracked the smartphones of more than 98 million people between March and May, taking into account the number of times their subjects went to restaurants, gyms and hotels, and concluding that if restaurants were authorized to open at full capacity, they would be responsible for more than 600,000 infections in a city like Chicago, and that, in addition, the distribution was irregular and impossible to predict: 10% of the premises were responsible for 85% of the expected infections.
In short, the cumulated evidence, data and scientific studies is incontrovertible. So sadly, until we have a mass vaccination program underway, the only responsible thing to do is to close restaurants and bars. A harsh measure? Sure, but we shouldn’t forget that we’re in the middle of global pandemic that is still expanding and claiming lives with each day that passes.
By Amiella AGAHOZO
This story was done as a collaboration with Flash TV/Radio