It is not clear how badly the coronavirus will end up affecting Kenya. The human suffering, the social shattering and the economic impacts are already huge and will continue growing. Depending on what eventually happens, the country will look to the rank incompetence and recklessness that characterised the initial reaction as a contributor to whatever damage the virus ends up leaving behind. Having watched the coronavirus ravage Asian and the European countries, Kenya had the forewarning and some lead time, to put in place measures that would have mitigated the crisis. However, Kenya’s political leadership remained unconcerned and detached. Government officials prevaricated in their decision-making, losing time and allowing the virus to take a foothold in the country.
Having initially shown great disinterest in managing responses to the coronavirus crisis, which he had delegated to a cabinet minister, President Uhuru Kenyatta eventually emerged to announce measures that are supposed outline a response to the clinical challenges the virus presents, to address the economic consequences of the crisis and to give the authorities better abilities to manage public to the control measures.
While the government has ensured that the public is informed about its management of the crisis by providing periodic communication, there is space for greater transparency in the management of the crisis. Unsure how long the crisis will last and whether it will always retain control over things, the government is hedging on the side of opacity, and has not provided many opportunities where media can independently report on what is going on.
The President’s announcement that one patient had recovered and several suspected cases had turned out to be negative, implying the existence of robust testing capabilities. Contrary to that impression, however, the capacity to test remains extremely limited and is available only in a small number of public facilities. While there is evidence that the virus may have spread to other parts of Kenya, the testing is currently only available in Nairobi. As a result, and in order to maximise on the limited testing resources, the current practice is to test only persons who show symptoms of infection. This approach will only meet limited success, first, because some infected persons remain asymptomatic and yet they are still able to infect others. Secondly, the very long incubation period for the virus means that readily-available testing is the only basis for an early intervention. A strategy for the prevention of new infections is not possible without capacity.
It is important the government quickly increases its capacity to test for the coronavirus. If tests become widely available, this will enable informed and quick decisions regarding the management of those infected and will save them from infecting others.
The President announced a dusk to dawn curfew aimed at “reducing movement and congregating in large groups.” This measure is presumably in addition to the stay-home directive that the government had already announced and which was already the subject of some public resistance that led to the emergence of different methods of attempted enforcement.
The curfew seems unnecessary as a measure of curbing human behaviour, and a more consensus-based approach would have been sufficient. Further, however desirable the requirement to stay home may be, it comes with significant challenges.
The first challenge implied by these measures is the disruption of the economic activities of daily wage earners. The 2019 census established that 51.1 % of the Kenyan population is economically active on economic activities that give them a daily income. Daily wage earners embody the high poverty levels in Kenya with 48% living below the poverty level, and a further 40% who live above the poverty line are at a very high risk of sliding in the case of general long ailment or a pandemic like Covid 19. The salaried population forms only 20% of the population but is also affected by the coronavirus through the declaration of redundancies and layoffs.
These measures have adversely affected the transport sector where boda boda operators have been banned and, matatus are required to reduce carrying capacity by 40%. Additionally, most companies have instituted pay cuts and layoffs. The informal sector, which supports a majority of the population, faces serious challenges due to the stay-home directive and closure of most markets which means loss of income for most households. The country is, therefore, not only faced with the threat of coronavirus but also that of livelihoods. Without a solution for people who would lose livelihoods as a result of having to comply with stay-home measures, such measures would be impossible to implement and would create socio-economic stress. Food insecurity, fear of evictions and foreclosure as well as the daily need to search for water all make it difficult vulnerable people to stay home.
The President announced measures that provide a response to the effects of the coronavirus on the economy, including tax exemption for the lowest salary earners, a reduction of turnover tax and VAT, and a commitment by the government to pay debts it owes which would increase cash flow, and salary cuts for the President and the cabinet. There were also measures to lower interest rates to make borrowing more affordable.
While the tax relief measures represent a good gesture on the part of the government, they are unlikely to touch the poorest segment of the population.
The people are Kenya’s biggest economic resource. The people also constitute the sanctity of life that is embodied in the human rights principles. The government must urgently roll out measures to secure the basic social and economic needs of its population before doing economic forecasting and corporate bailouts. These measures should be developed by a broadened taskforce on the coronavirus to include all the ministries led by the Ministries of planning, the national treasury, ministry of agriculture and trade taking lead in developing a comprehensive plan of keeping Kenyans alive during this period of fighting the corona pandemic.
The second challenge affecting stay-home measures is the nature of Kenya’s urban settlement. Of the urban population, nearly 40% live in informal settlements where social distancing would be impossible to implement. Tied to congestion are the limitations that impose the life routines the poorest segment of the population. This population has no fridges or physical space to store food or water, which must be sought on a daily basis. Even if there was money in the pocket, daily movement is necessary to fetch water and to buy food. The only way to keep people at home would be to give them a constant supply of food and water. Strategies that encourage and facilitate people to relocate as a means of decongesting densely populated neighbourhoods would be needed. Those strategies would also need to come with compensation for relocation costs and the loss of income associated with such relocation.
While the government has correctly emphasized the need to observe high standards of hygiene and sanitation as a key plank in the fight against coronavirus, informal settlements are characterized by lack of clean and flowing water and poor sanitation in addition to congested housing. Access to clean water is limited to 58% of the population while adequate sanitation is limited to 30% of the Kenyan population. The government needs to secure the most vulnerable populations through the provision free and constant water supplies and soap and the general urban population with water and soap in all public areas.
The President's announcement that the Universal Health Coverage kitty is to be appropriated to enable the recruitment of additional health personnel is a welcomed gesture. While their work is commendable, health practitioners are not adequately resourced in terms of numbers, knowledge and capacity building. The government needs to engage additional capacities ranging from doctors, clinicians, nurses, laboratory technicians among others, and to adequately resource them to protect their health from the risks of infection and exhaustion.
With the government declaring three coastal counties as high-risk, in addition to Nairobi the coronavirus now also threatens local communities and may badly strain the existing health facilities in such areas. The national government and county governments must collaboratively set up coronavirus treatment facilities to ensure as many people are able to access medical care and management of coronavirus wherever cases occur. This approach is not possible unless there are testing equipment and facilities at a very basic level.
The expanded task force should address a number of key concerns including, access to food for during the stay-home period, housing particularly for those paying rent and those living in crowded areas; water and sanitation which have been illustrated to be the anchor methods of curbing the spread of coronavirus. The task force also needs to ensure maximum retention of employees on full wages for as long as possible to enable them to provide for themselves and their families and to ensure that farmers producing food for subsistence and commercial uses, including cash crops, are supported to continue producing through an approach that ensures that all cash-crops produce produced during this period are fully processed in the country and stored properly for export in the future.
Finally, whereas the measures proposed above apply to most of the population, there are vulnerable sections including the elderly, detainees, persons living with HIV and other chronic ailments, expectant and lactating mothers, street families, stateless persons and persons with disability who risk being further marginalized or exposed. All measures taken by the government should address the different needs of this population. The government must guard against unfair discrimination of the vulnerable and marginalized groups in the response against coronavirus.
Kenya Human Rights Commission.
Nairobi, 27th March 2020.