Kenya August Covid update

After several months of moderate increases, official diagnosed cases of Covid 19 in Kenya began to rise sharply in July and August. To date, most Kenyans have experienced the pandemic’s political and economic ramifications more severely than the disease itself. Overall, despite restrictions in movement, daily life has largely continued.

As of 14 August, nationally, 29,338 cases have been diagnosed, out of 381,317 people tested, and Nairobi continues to account for over half. However, with both access to health care and Covid 19 testing limited, the real number of cases is likely many times higher than official reports. Government and media continue to report daily counts of new cases diagnosed alongside “record” numbers of recoveries and hospital discharges.

As of July, the city’s hospitals continued to treat patients but were at capacity and considering sending patients to neighbouring counties. The country will participate in global clinical trials of two therapeutic drugs, remdesivir and tocilizumab, in coming months. In late July, the government announced that treatment for Covid 19 at public hospitals will be free. The accuracy of test results at one laboratory has been questioned. Health care workers across the country have contracted the illness.

The pandemic is exacerbating the challenges in an already fragile and struggling health care system. Most Kenyan remain unable to afford to access care, with 20% having some form of insurance. As Covid progresses, routine health care has decreased as well. Kenya has one advantage: a young population, with about 40% of Kenyans are children, over 50% are under 35, and only 4% are 65 or above. (Over 18 million children will miss an entire school year.)

Beginning in March, many people and businesses quickly adopted face masks and hand hygiene efforts to prevent the spread of the virus. Mask-wearing was made mandatory in April, although violence marred the ostensible police enforcement of mobility restrictions, social distancing, and mask-wearing. Across the country, communities and organisations mobilised to provide protective equipment supplies and staple goods to people in need locally, though most were at a small scale relative to need.

Over several months of slow Covid spread, dubious information spread widely across the public domain, questioning the reality and severity of the virus, offering “medical” advice on Covid prevention, promoting purported preventative measures and drugs, and raising doubts regarding the efficacy, safety, and true intention behind vaccines under development. Few people have had firsthand experience with Covid 19 thus far, although this is changing.

Covid response

A government effort to spur county governments to produce and set up 300 isolation beds and new facilities has met its goal in five counties at most (as of July).

Kenya has received significant emergency Covid relief and related funding from external donors exceeding USD $2 billion. Heading into August, the Daily Nation launched an investigative series into profit-seeking and corruption in the trade, sale, and distribution of relief goods and services. Media reported that N95 masks were procured for almost double the real market cost, a charge which Kemsa (Kenya Medical Supplies Authority) denied in a press release. President Kenyatta’s niece, Samantha Ngina, is also accused of profiting. The Network Action against Corruption (NAAC) called for a prompt investigation into the “looting spree”. The Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (EACC) is conducting a separate investigation into Kemsa.

Kemsa has a mandate to buy drugs for the country’s public health care facilities. Even prior to Covid 19, an ongoing corruption scandal implicated Kemsa in graft and other improprieties in procurement and financial management related to USD $1 billion in funds. The donors, Global Fund and USAID (US Agency for International Development), conducted an independent audit, completed in December 2019 and shared in May 2020. The audit found that Kemsa sold supplies to county governments for up to 77% above market value for essential drugs and an even higher markup for other non-pharmaceuticals.

Mobility restrictions, school closures, evictions, & ramifications

In early March, Kenya’s first Covid case, a Kenyan national traveling from New York, was diagnosed. By mid-March, the government suspended international flights, as well as domestic flights and movement within and between Nairobi and coastal counties. It imposed a nationwide nighttime curfew from 9pm to 4am. It mandated fewer passengers (more spacing) on public transportation, a rule which was not followed.

Also in mid-March, the government closed schools. They will remain closed until 2021. Students are expected to repeat a year of schooling, and new student intake is suspended. National exams have been cancelled. Private school teachers are losing their jobs. Already, teen pregnancies are rising quickly. Domestic violence and sexual exploitation has increased dramatically, with perpetrators targeting increasingly younger children.

In May, large-scale forced evictions plunged thousands of people into homelessness in the Nairobi informal settlements of Kariobangi and Ruai, Mathare. In Kariobangi, despite rising Covid numbers countrywide, cold season heavy rains, the continuing curfew, and a court injunction that ordered the demolition stopped, city authorities bulldozed 600 houses, churches, shops, and schools. In Kariobangi, the status of the land and rights of ownership and tenancy is disputed; Nairobi Water and Sewerage Company claims ownership and led the evictions. Soon after, authorities carried out an eviction in Ruai at 10pm, casting residents into the streets, in violation of curfew. Major human rights groups condemned the evictions, noting that evicted residents were made more vulnerable to the pandemic. The UN Human Rights Council urged Kenya to stop all evictions and protect human rights defenders.

In July, Kenya began easing restrictions on mobility, although President Kenyatta warned that he would reimpose lockdowns if necessary. On 15 July, the ban on domestic flights was lifted. On 1 August, international flights began again (as in many countries), with entry to Kenya requiring passengers to be asymptomatic and to produce a negative Covid test processed within the prior seven days. Quarantining is not required.

The nationwide nighttime curfew is set to continue through August and could be extended again.

Economy & politics

While daily life continues for most, the situation has caused a profound disruption and decrease in economic activity. Police brutality, including killings, has increased markedly during the purported enforcement of government-imposed Covid measures. In informal urban communities, ostensibly to disperse gatherings after curfew, police patrols regularly use gunshots and other threats of violence, as well as beatings. In one case, police beat a local government official, captured on camera. In another incident, police shot and killed a child who was playing on the balcony of his home. In early July in Nairobi, a public demonstration against the police violence led to injuries and detention of dozens of protestors, by police. (Instances of police violence are not unique to the pandemic. In an “operation” in May, police shot, injured, and killed a suspect and many members of his family.)

Job and income losses have been significant. While better documented in the formal sector, informal sector workers constitute 80% of Kenya’s workforce and are most severely affected.

The government has not provided direct financial assistance or benefits to the public. Commercial banks restructured about USD $8 billion in loans with sanction from the Central Bank. The National Employment Authority “advised and recommended for the establishment of an unemployment relief fund.” Some ministries have provided targeted relief, such as the Ministry of Tourism providing a moratorium on rent for lodges in public parks.

In July, the national government launched a programme to provide menial temporary jobs to thousands of youth. The new USD $100 million Kazi Mtaani project has faced criticism for failing to create sustainable employment (as well as for being demeaning). In at least one town, recruitment efforts led job-focused youth to congregate in large groups in close spaces. President Kenyatta warned against corruption of the project. Also, promised pay was restricted and reduced without explanation; a number of concerns were raised by the National Youth Council.

Governance and civic functions

With restrictions on movement and office closures, government functions slowed. Courts closed to all but urgent cases, with some courts hearing some cases virtually. In Nairobi, the central Milimani Courts reopened only to close again in response to outbreaks. One major ruling that was delivered regardless was found in favour of the Owino Uhuru community in its case against a lead-acid battery recycling plant for having caused serious lead poisoning.

While some industrial projects were halted or slowed, others continued quickly with little oversight. Three berths of Lamu Port were announced completed. (In response to Covid 19 in March, port authorities had mandated that all workers live within the port area, to restrict movement of people.) For over two years, construction continued in disregard of a landmark court ruling, which has languished ‘pending’ appeal. Lamu Port is part of the Lamu Southern Sudan Ethiopia Transportation Corridor Project, or LAPSSET.

Agriculture, fishing, and tourism: major industries

Covid 19 arrived in the midst of locust invasions that continue to destroy crops across the region. Extensive flooding from 2019 caused vegetation and locusts to proliferate well into 2020, though in Kenya the situation has eased.

The pandemic has caused further agricultural industry distress. Farmers across the country, including chilli farmers in Kitui, have faced slowdowns in trade, disrupted supply chains, and perishable crop losses.

The tourism sector has lost at least USD $800 million since March. Officials say it has begun to recover, broadly, as restrictions ease and travel increases. In Maasai Mara, the Great Migration of wildebeest and others is entering into its height, with few human observers.

The fishing sector across the country have been crippled. The pandemic quickly disrupted trade in both domestic and overseas markets. The months-long nationwide nighttime curfew has prohibited them from fishing at night as they normally do. Fishermen at Lake Victoria asked for an exemption in March after the curfew went into effect.

In Lamu, these pandemic disruptions and restrictions compounded an already challenging status quo for the fisherfolk, who already have suffered years of income losses due to sustained dredging and continuing construction for Lamu Port (as well as displacement from farms, for seasonal fisher-farmers) without receiving the compensation awarded to them by High Court in 2018.

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