Written by Nelson Chege.
The COVID-19 pandemic has left the entire world grappling with the effects of a global health crisis. Beyond the immediate human toll impact, the outbreak is bound to have serious economic repercussions. The mortality rate from the spread of the Corona virus is rapidly rising in countries like Italy, China, and Iran, prompting other nations to take unprecedented preemptive measures.
Kenya’s response went from perceived laxity to high alert as the first cases of the infection were reported in the country. The Kenyan government quickly moved from a refusal to suspend flights from China to suspending international flights, shutting down entertainment joints and issuing occasional presidential briefings on the pandemic[i]. Despite these measures, health experts have warned that community infections in Kenya, could happen at any time and the country should brace itself[ii].
As more developed countries struggle with flattening the curve for COVID-19 after the infection has already significantly spread, Kenya’s best hope is curtailing the transmission before the number of infected reaches double digits. Flattening the curve essentially means slowing down the spread of the virus so by spreading the number of sick people over a longer period and not overwhelming the healthcare system in place.
The concept of flattening the curve seems effective in theory but considering Kenya’s systemic shortcomings, might not be applicable. One requirement for flattening the curve is reducing human interaction and ensuring as much isolation as possible. Further, there is a need to have a healthcare system that can accommodate the ‘manageable’ number of COVID-19 infections. Unfortunately, Kenya appears to be severely lacking in both; unearthing critical failings in both economic and health policy.
The Kenyan government has since the emergence of patient zero in the country, called for social isolation and self-quarantine measures. The idea is to stop the spread of the virus and treat the small number that has already been infected[iii]. The concept of self-quarantine however, calls for people to either close down their businesses or work from home; a concept that is bound to fail in a country where 36.1% of the population live on less than the international poverty line of US$1.90 per day.[iv] As the possibility of a public health crisis in Kenya looms, policymakers are being forced to learn some very critical lessons.
When Cabinet Secretary for health announced the first case of COVID-19 in Nairobi; there were clearly mixed reactions around the country. The first impulse by a section of Kenyans was to rush to shops and supermarkets and stock up toiletries and food while others continued with their day to day life[v]. A distinct difference between these two groups is the prevailing income and wealth inequalities in the country.
A section of Kenyans appear unfazed by the Corona Virus because they cannot afford to panic. Panic involves stocking up on food and not going to work which is essentially impossible for many Kenyans. As the number of Covid-19 infections grows in the country, a vicious cycle emerges. The low-income workers without health insurance or even sick leave now have a heightened risk of contracting the disease, making those able to stock up on food and work from home also susceptible to infection.
Undoubtedly, a lot of the existing economic policies and regulatory frameworks in the country are classist and egregious. Legislation and employment policies fail to target those who need certain benefits the most. Those with fewer economic resources; both wealth and income now face a significant chance of losing their jobs, lacking food and worse even; getting infected with COVID-19. The latter is a new ramification that might be the wake-up call that policymakers require. A realization that a poor economy could place the middle class and elite in immediate mortal danger may lead to better policy responses in stabilizing the Kenyan economy as a whole.
Health Care System
Before delving into the economy, the ongoing pandemic is a health issue. The Public healthcare system is struggling. Rampant doctors and nurses’ strikes have led to a crippling public health system. The World Health Organization has listed Kenya as one of the countries with a critical shortage with healthcare workers, leading to an increase in mortality cases[vi].
Policy shortcomings in health care exist in both service delivery and insurance provision for all Kenyans. Like many sectors in the country’s public service, the health sector is marred with instances of graft and misappropriation of millions of dollars[vii]. Even without a public health pandemic like COVID-19, the Kenyan Health System is still seriously inadequate[viii].
A form of classism can also be seen in the approach to health care policies in the country. A common trend of lawmakers and leaders actively avoiding health care institutions to seek treatment abroad is indicative of selfishness and ineptness. Machakos Governor, Alfred Mutua, has been quoted stating that the pandemic should be viewed as a blessing in disguise. For the first time, leaders and policymakers cannot jet out of the country for specialized treatment. In an unprecedented manner, COVID-19 has become quite the unfortunate equalizer.
It should, therefore, be pertinent that all stakeholders take measures to fix an ailing system. Even as the pandemic abates, whenever that will be, a revamp on policy on service delivery in health care should ensure that everyone can access proper and affordable treatment in the country.
The COVID-19 pandemic will completely change the world, making it almost impossible to go back to how things were before the outbreak. The negative effects will be momentous and haunting; however, we should also learn from this crisis.
care professionals, small business owners, teachers, care-givers and other
previously disparaged persons, who are now performing unfathomable tasks to
ensure the world doesn’t shut down, should henceforth, have the policy and
regulatory protections they truly deserve.
[i] Kahongeh, J. (2020). Coronavirus: How Kenya response went from lax to high alert. Daily Nation. Retrieved from: https://www.nation.co.ke/news/Coronavirus-Covid-19-Kenya-response-escalation/1056-5496332-fruuuo/index.html
[ii] Hervey, G. (2020). Community infections could happen any time’: Kenya prepares for Covid-19. The Guardian. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2020/mar/19/community-infections-could-happen-any-time-kenya-prepares-for-covid-19-coronavirus
[iii] Wasike, A. (2020). Kenya launches COVID-19 Isolation center. AA. https://www.aa.com.tr/en/africa/kenya-launches-covid-19-isolation-center/1757651.
[iv] World Bank (2018). Poverty Incidence in Kenya Declined Significantly, but Unlikely to be Eradicated by 2030. World Bank. Retrieved from: https://www.worldbank.org/en/country/kenya/publication/kenya-economic-update-poverty-incidence-in-kenya-declined-significantly-but-unlikely-to-be-eradicated-by-2030
[v] EA (2020). Coronavirus panic-buying leads to empty shelves in Nairobi. The East African. Retrieved from: https://www.theeastafrican.co.ke/news/ea/Panic-shopping-hits-Nairobi-supermarkets-/4552908-5490428-nm8dg7z/index.html
[vi] Miseda, M. H., Were, S. O., Murianki, C. A., Mutuku, M. P., & Mutwiwa, S. N. (2017). The implication of the shortage of health workforce specialist on universal health coverage in Kenya. Human resources for health, 15(1), 80.
[vii] See ^iv above.