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News & Blog > News > Letter from Kenya: The pandemic isn't over yet

Letter from Kenya: The pandemic isn't over yet

IDS alum Suvojit Chattopadhyay (MAGov09) gives us an update on Kenya's response to Covid-19. Highlighting 3 urgent areas: vaccinations, a plan for long-term economic recovery and public trust.
26 Apr 2021
Written by Suvojit Chattopadhyay
Image: istock 1288583851
Image: istock 1288583851

Last year, I wrote about Kenya’s early response to the Covid19 crisis. Globally, the pandemic has evolved, taking on a very different shape and form compared to when it was first widely detected early last year. Several vaccine development efforts were successful and have been rolled out primarily in the global North. There are justifiable concerns that rich countries had pre-ordered and hoarded vaccines, which is essentially delaying and denying poor countries’ access to life-saving covid19 vaccination. Some might say this was partially a result of the disproportionately heavy toll the virus took in Europe and America. In comparison, developing countries seemed to have escaped with fewer deaths, for reasons not entirely established, but as many experts pointed out, the younger demographic pattern of the developing world may have had a role to play.

The last couple of months should have disabused us of any such complacency regarding the impact of the virus on poorer countries. Take Kenya for example. In the second half of 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic seemed to be easing. While the country maintained a night curfew (10 pm to 5 am), most establishments including restaurants and bars reopened. The tax breaks announced in April 2020 lapsed at the end of 2020. Workers had started going back to their offices and urban traffic, a reasonable indicator of economic activity, seemed to have resumed to pre-pandemic levels. The liquidity measures announced by the Kenyan Central Bank and the demand-stimulus provided in the form of tax breaks had cushioned the impact on the economy, and Kenya is expected to report a near zero percent growth in 2020.

As it turned out, Kenya saw a new wave of coronavirus infections starting in February 2021. Latest numbers from Kenya show over 156,000 confirmed cases and 2,600 deaths. These are still relatively low numbers, but when one factors in the low levels of testing and the room for under-reporting, it is easy to see why the recent spike has the government worried. Nearly four weeks back, the government announced another lockdown. This time, the government ordered restaurants and bars to close, had the curfew starting at 8 pm, stopped domestic flights, and placed restrictions on inter-county travel outside a specified zone around Nairobi. The economy, which was recovering from the impact of last year’s lockdown, has again been badly affected. 1.7 million jobs were lost in last year’s lockdown, and the situation might worsen if the current lockdown is prolonged.

As this was unfolding, Kenya also faced challenges rolling out its vaccination campaign. As per the National Covid-19 Vaccines Deployment and Vaccination Plan, the government announced that it would target healthcare workers and those above the age of 58. It received 1 million doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines early in March 2021 through GAVI’s COVAX facility, and another 100,000 doses from India. While this was deployed through a list of approved government and private healthcare facilities, take-up among the priority groups remained low. In between, there was also a controversy involving private players importing the Russian Sputnik V vaccine and administering them for a cost even before the government had approved them for commercial sales.

Catherine Kyobutungi, Executive Director, African Population and Health Research Centre (APHRC) recently wrote about the issues that have plagued the vaccine roll out in Kenya. She points out how a combination of limited access and vaccine hesitancy posed a significant risk to the entire vaccination effort. On one hand, Kenya did not have enough doses of the vaccine available to cater to its target population – healthcare workers and people above the age of 58 add up to around 4 million. On the other hand, the vaccine hesitancy is rampant and has resulted in low take-up of even the doses that have been made available. It has taken Kenya nearly eight weeks to use up the 1.1 million doses it had imported.

Kenya has received no further vaccines due to the flare up of Covid19 in India. This is yet another crisis in the making and highlights the importance of south-south cooperation at this time of crisis. India is currently facing a crisis of epic proportions, registering over 350,000 cases every day. The Indian government therefore suspended the export of the Covishield vaccine manufactured by the Serum Institute of India (SII). These SII-manufactured vaccines form the backbone of the COVAX facility which much of the developing world was depending on to procure and administer vaccines to its citizens. A break in that supply chain can set back vaccination efforts in countries like Kenya by several months. 

What next?

The government in Kenya thus has its task cut out. As expected, the public health impact and the economic costs of Covid19 has seen a prolonged spell, and has disproportionately affected the most vulnerable among Kenyans. Here are three urgent priority areas that follow in this context:

First, the government must try and vaccinate as much of Kenya’s labour force as possible. This means that a much larger group of people will be eligible for the vaccine, far higher than the number of doses currently in the government’s possession. Kenya must enlist the support of the international community and multilateral facilities such as COVAX to secure larger stocks of the vaccine. Kenya should also use its position on the UN Security Council to lobby for alternate sources of vaccines for countries like itself. North America and Europe are currently sitting on surplus stocks of vaccines, and there is no reason why the surplus cannot be redirected to Africa.

Securing vaccines is only one part of the story. Alongside, Kenya needs to launch a high-profile public awareness campaign to communicate widely, the benefits of taking the vaccine. This is particularly important in rural and suburban centres. A related priority is improving the poor health infrastructure that poses logistical challenges to safe transportation, storage and administration of the vaccine.

Second, focus on long-term economic recovery. Kenya needs to develop a sure-footed domestic economic recovery plan. It is currently receiving funds from external sources that will complement domestic resources in implementing economic stimulus measures. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has announced a credit facility of $2.4 billion in low-cost financing over three years. This is in addition to the $739 million interest-free loan that IMF provided in 2020. Using these funds, Kenya should strengthen its social safety nets, as well as adopt medium-term economic reforms.

Third, take concrete steps to win public trust. Activists in Kenya have raised concerns around the mounting public debt. The controversies around the deployment of vaccines in private facilities and the concerns around fake vaccines have eroded public trust. The government needs to take concrete measures to demonstrate that it is being prudent with public expenditure, and that active measures are being taken to minimise corruption and wastage.

In summary, while working to rapidly ramp up its vaccination programme, the Kenyan government must focus on long-term economic recovery and winning public confidence that public funds are being used prudently in this time of crisis. The international community has a role to play in facilitating Kenya’s access to vaccines, but domestic policies remain at the core of Kenya’s recovery process from this crisis.

This is an update to the IDS Alumni Response to alumni network news articles published around the beginning of the Covid-19 Pandemic: -

IDS Alumni Response to COVID-19

IDS Alumni Response to COVID-19 (Part 2)

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