Kenya counts the cost of Covid-19
As Covid-19 cases rise more rapidly in Kenya, President Uhuru Kenyatta has announced an extension of measures to try contain the virus
On Sunday, one day after President Uhuru Kenyatta announced an extension of measures to contain the spread of the coronavirus, Kenya announced its biggest daily rise in Covid-19 cases. The 167 new infections brought the total to 2,767, with 84 deaths attributed to the virus.
Since Kenya’s first case was recorded on March 13, the government has put in place various regulations to limit the spread of the virus. It imposed a nationwide 7pm-5am curfew (now shortened to 9pm-4am); prohibited movement into or out of the Nairobi metropolitan area and the counties of Mombasa, Kilifi and Kwale; closed schools, hotels, golf clubs and bars; introduced a work-from-home policy; and made it mandatory for anyone entering the country to undergo a 14-day quarantine at their own cost.
The government also banned all international flights and closed the country’s borders to everything except cargo planes and trucks carrying essential goods.
Under the government’s direction, companies have embarked on the mass production of personal protective equipment and sanitisers. By May 6, 82 vocational training institutes in 21 counties were producing 431,000 face masks a day, according to Wycliffe Oparanya, chair of Kenya’s 47-member Council of Governors.
Early projections estimated the national Covid-19 caseload would reach 5,000 by mid-April and 10,000 by the end of that month. But it was only in mid-May that the infection rate began rising more rapidly — mostly in Nairobi and Mombasa, which together account for 80% of the national total. According to Dr Patrick Amoth, director-general of Kenya’s health services, the government now expects a daily increase of 200-300 cases by August.
The 47 county governments have each been advised to identify 20 boarding schools as alternative quarantine and isolation centres, and to set aside 1,000 emergency beds. Already more than 6,000 additional health workers have been recruited around the country.
But some are concerned that the official numbers may not accurately reflect the true situation. Nairobi doctor Samuel Kamau, for example, says the number of infections could be much higher, due to the small number of samples tested (an average 2,000 tests a day).
"The number of infections increases as the [number] of people tested increases," says Kamau. "It is true we can register 200-300 cases daily if the government tested at least 5,000 people daily."
With infection numbers still low and manageable, hospitals remain unburdened. But Kenya’s capacity to handle a surge is cause for concern. Media reports in March indicated that the country had just 518 ICU beds. And in his address on Saturday, Kenyatta questioned the ability of some counties to manage the pandemic, saying each county will be required to set up at least one 300-bed isolation centre.
But if the health-care sector is yet to feel the full burden of the Covid-19 pandemic, the economy is already taking strain. Job losses and pay cuts dominate the pages of local media. A report by the labour ministry indicates that more than 130,000 workers lost their jobs in the past two months. And Kenyatta told the nation in early May that job losses are expected to surpass 500,000 over the next six months.
Agriculture, the cornerstone of the economy and the biggest employer, contributes 27% of GDP. Tea, coffee and horticulture are the main pillars of the sector — but their operations were frozen in March and April and thousands of workers were sent home.
The East African Tea Trade Association, based in Mombasa, is one of the biggest tea-trading platforms in the world, drawing product from Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Malawi, Madagascar and Mozambique. Its activities were disrupted by a directive forbidding public gatherings, along with national lockdowns in tea-importing countries. According to a report in The Nation newspaper, exports to Kenya’s three biggest tea markets — Pakistan, Egypt and the UK — were down 10%-15% in the first quarter.
With social-distancing measures in place, the association has now reopened its auction floor — though agriculture minister Peter Munya has given it, along with the Nairobi Coffee Exchange, an ultimatum to digitise operations or face suspension. "The ministry will not renew [their] licences if they will not move to online trading permanently in the next two months," he says.
In the fruit and flower sector, farmers have dumped their produce or have left it rotting in the fields due to lockdowns in European markets. Kenya Flower Council CEO Clement Tulezi says the sector has been losing about $100,000 a day.
"The sector is on its knees despite its contribution to the country’s foreign exchange and employing more than 150,000 people," says Tulezi.
With more than half of Kenya’s working population employed in the agricultural sector, the impact is severe, says agricultural economist Joseph Mwema.
"Agriculture is the backbone of your economy and without it [there will be] no food for the people, no commodities to export, no raw materials for industries and jobs," he says, adding that Kenya should brace for bankruptcies, asset auctions due to unpaid loans, and huge job losses.
But agriculture is by no means the only sector in trouble.
In the restaurant industry, the government reversed its original position and allowed restaurants to trade under strict conditions. But operators complain these are no better than a complete shutdown because they involve great expense and scare off potential customers.
Before restaurants can reopen, they must undergo a public health inspection. Once open, they are expected to take the temperatures of staff and customers before they enter the premises, and limit seating to four customers per 10m² of space. They also have to test staff for infection every 14 days at their own cost.
"We are advised to take our workers for tests in public hospitals at $10 per person, but some hospitals do not have testing kits," says Nairobi restaurateur John Kihara. "Private hospitals charge $80-$100 per person."
Restrictions on movement and floods in some parts of the country have made matters worse, says Kihara. As a result, only about two in 10 restaurants have reopened; others remain shut to reduce unnecessary costs.
The rising cost of food has also taken its toll, says Kihara — for restaurants and ordinary consumers alike. Kenyans rely on imports of fresh produce such as onions, potatoes, maize, beans and fruit from Uganda and Tanzania. With borders closed and food shortages taking hold, prices have more than doubled, adding to the misery of an already struggling nation.
Lockdowns are also putting regional food security at risk.
"The grain sector has come into sharp focus for food security, as governments across the region enforce stricter social distancing and quarantine measures, which have jeopardised food supply chains for processors and the purchasing power of millions of low-income households," the Eastern African Grain Council says in a report.
Maize stocks are running at below-normal levels. Before the pandemic, about 700,000t of maize crossed into Kenya from Uganda every day. Now, the government is allowing local millers to import maize from Mexico at a subsidised duty of 14% (rather than the 50% they should pay under the East African Community treaty).
Elsewhere in the economy, tourism is grounded, with hotels closed and international flights banned. Long-distance buses have ceased operations and other public transport — buses, taxis, trains and ferries — are only allowed to operate at 60% of seating capacity, which has meant fares have doubled.
Manufacturing is also feeling the pinch. A survey of members of the Kenya Association of Manufacturers (KAM) found 87% have been hit by a shortage of raw materials due to reduced supply from China.
And almost half expect increased lead times to push up their logistics costs.
"The subsectors that are most affected are food and beverages, textile and apparel, plastics and rubber, building, mining and construction," says KAM CEO Phyllis Wakiaga.
She says the disruption of global supply chains will mean lower stock levels, difficulties in filling orders and price increases for raw materials as transport costs rise — all pushing up the price of finished products.
The disruption has made clear how important it is to localise as much of the production chain as possible, says Wakiaga. "Kenya can forge the resilience of local industries by enhancing our local value chain — from raw materials to finished products. Doing so, we can shelter the manufacturing sector from industrial and trade risks arising out of external shocks. This way, Kenya can source raw materials and intermediate products locally, before turning to international markets."
Against all of this, the government has cautioned that the worst is still to come.
And as infections rise, Oparanya has warned that a lack of water in Nairobi and Mombasa poses a challenge to hygiene regulations. Other concerns relate to dilapidated roads in remote villages, and a transport system that won’t have the capacity to evacuate those in need of treatment and isolation.
There’s also the challenge of people ignoring guidelines around social distancing and hand-washing, and sneaking in and out of locked-down cities such as Nairobi and Mombasa.
While it’s mandatory to wear face masks in public, for many the cost is prohibitive — so they borrow masks from neighbours, or buy them from hawkers who have simply recycled masks found dumped in the streets. Others only put masks on for fear of being arrested and forced into quarantine.
The fear of quarantine poses its own challenge. People are avoiding hospitals in case they are put into isolation — which means 30% of Kenya’s Covid-19 deaths are happening at home, according to health minister Mutahi Kagwe. Also alarming, says the government, is an increase in self-medication as people attempt to treat the disease.