COVID-19 in Kenya: The complex policy challenges facing the government

Progress made against key indicators, such as educational achievement and financial inclusion for women, could be lost as a result of COVID-19. What actions can be taken?
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Street scene in Nairobi, Kenya

Although the health impacts of COVID-19 in Kenya had been limited at the time of writing, the economic and social impacts were hitting Kenyan citizens hard: our research undertaken in Kenya in May 2020 revealed that 9 in 10 families had seen their income decrease, and 4 in 10 had also reported increased incidences of domestic violence.

This article explores the effects of COVID-19 and the imperative for the Kenyan government to implement well-managed and coordinated interventions to both support the economy, and protect household welfare, health and security. Also of note, in contrast to our research in the G7, is the overwhelming citizen concern for the impact on the economy.

Kenyan government acts fast and wins early public approval

Although the number of COVID-19 cases and fatalities to date appear relatively low in sub-Saharan Africa compared to other parts of the world, it is now widely acknowledged that the pandemic could have a disastrous impact on already strained health systems, and could potentially turn into a social and economic emergency.

Official statistics show that the speed of the lockdown in Kenya certainly slowed the virus’s early progress. As of July 2020, Kenya has fewer than 9,000 reported cases based on almost 200,000 tests, and fewer than 170 deaths (pop 53 million). 82% of cases are centred around Nairobi and Mombasa – supporting theories that global travellers are more likely to carry COVID-19 into the country.

The quick action of the Kenyan government to limit the spread of the virus - closing borders, restricting flights in/out of Kenya, shutting down or limiting major distribution and travel routes (road, rail, air), and the implementation of curfews – has generated widespread trust and approval amongst Kenyans. 80% approved of the way the government responded to the COVID-19 outbreak, with 49% strongly approving, and only 15% disagreeing with the government’s approach. 82% stated that they trust the government to make the right decisions in the future.

Uncertainty for the future triggers anxiety amongst citizens with real economic impacts already being felt

While the statistics tell one story, the impact of the lockdown on the economy and the lives of Kenyans, tells another. Our recent research shows that Kenyans’ main worries are the economy and the household, in particular the education of children. Kenyans feel conflicted. The tension for most families lies in the desire to both protect dependents and earn a living. There are anxieties around ongoing restrictions but also what happens when restrictions are lifted.

While fearing a second wave of the virus, the vast majority are more concerned about the reboot of the economy, than the health risks of COVID-19:

  • 91% have reported a loss of income. Adults with dependents are more affected, with 94% with 3+ dependents seeing a reduction of household income vs 85% with no dependents.
  • 67% report using money or assets saved for education to meet their daily needs while 53% without dependents are also using their education savings or other assets to get by.
  • Among adults who own/run their own business, 64% report having to sell stock or business assets to survive.

Even before COVID-19, Kenya was only just emerging from several major crises which had severely impacted the economy. Two floods displaced tens of thousands and cut off major avenues for trade. The arrival of the locust swarms right at the start of crop planting further threatens output levels, straining the supply chain and earning potential for farmers and agribusiness on which Kenya heavily relies. The most recent World Bank Kenya Economic Update warns growth will plummet from a previously predicted 5.9-6.0% to 1.0-1.5% in 2020.

Women in business find themselves under acute pressure

On the gender front, the pandemic presents severe economic risk factors. Our Financial Inclusion Insights research has shown that whilst Kenya has previously made enormous strides in expanding financial access and reducing financial exclusion among women, the gender gap persists. Women’s access to credit, loans and financial support is still restricted because of the repayment conditions set by financial institutions, particularly during and after a pandemic.

The gender balance in business and industry is also disturbed with more male casual labourers being laid off. This creates additional pressures for women in small businesses, who are now both breadwinner and household carer. Collateral is more often a prerequisite and as Kenyan tradition assumes men are the asset owners, women struggle to access the financial resources needed to protect their businesses and feed their families.


This piece is an extract of the full article published in our PUBLIC Journal on 3 September 2020. To read the rest of this article, please download our free journal here.

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PUBLIC Journal 2020
PUBLIC Journal issue 01
From impact to recovery: read the perspectives of our public policy experts on COVID-19 and the citizen response.
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