September 10, 2020

The Impact of COVID-19 on the Poor and Vulnerable in Kenya

The COVID-19 has now spread to every country in Africa, as of August 28, 2020, there are 1,220,511 confirmed infections, 28,850 deaths, and 953,643 recoveries across the continent. In Kenya, so far, there are 33,389 confirmed cases with 567 deaths. The first coronavirus case in Kenya was reported on March 13, 2020, and since then the Kenyan government has taken some measures to curb the spread of the virus by closing schools, airports, churches, mosques, restricting public gatherings, imposing curfews and restrictions on movement around the country.

Although it helped slow down the spread of the virus, these mitigation measures also caused some challenges to the poor and vulnerable groups. The majority of Kenyans are working in the informal sector, which accounts for 83.6% of the total employment in 2018.

In May 2020, Kenya National Bureau of Statistics conducted a survey that shows that Kenya’s labour participation rate has drastically decreased due to COVID-19.

This reduction in labor participation rates due to job losses have resulted in a loss of earnings which in turn led to shifts in the habits of food purchases as very poor households are only buying very basic food.A new survey by GeoPoll shows that 86% of Kenyans are worried about not having enough money to purchase food.

Also, poor people are having a hard time meeting their everyday expenses and paying bills such as rents, and according to Kenya National Bureau of Statistics survey 30.5% of Kenyans who are renting apartments and houses cannot pay their rent.

On March 15, 2020, the Kenyan government announced that schools and colleges would be closed across the nation and that online learning or technology-mediated learning on TV, radio, and mobile phones should be adopted.

However, this causes a big challenge for students in rural villages due to lack of internet connection, electricity as well as electronic devices such as computers, laptops, and smartphones which in turn makes online learning not accessible for students in marginalized communities.

Furthermore, school closures have also affected students who depend on the school feeding programs as their primary source of food. The strict measures imposed by the Kenyan government to fight COVID-19 have negatively affected women and girls as gender-based and sexual violence have increased significantly.

For instance, the calls to national helplines reporting domestic violence incidents have increased from 86 calls in February to 1108 calls in June. In addition, many girls are engaging in transactional sex in order to be able to buy food as many families have suffered from an income loss. This has increased the number of teen pregnancies whereas there have been more than 4000 pregnancy cases just in one county since schools closed in March.

Furthermore, some regions have reported that hundreds of girls have been subjected to female genital mutilation and child marriages. In addition, night curfews present some challenges to pregnant women as they have struggled to find transportation to hospitals.

There has been an incident where a driver who was taking a woman in labour to give birth in a hospital during the curfew has been stopped by the police and beaten brutally. The pandemic has also effected the refugees as there are thousands of refugees in Kenya who live in overcrowded spaces with little access to clean water and hence this makes it very difficult for refugees to practice social distancing and regular hand washing.

For instance, in the Kakuma Refugee camp and Kalobeyei Integrated Settlement, which have 196,666 refugees, social distancing is not an option as many households live near each other. The nationwide evening curfew has negatively impacted shopkeepers in Kakuma Refugee Camp because their most busy hours are usually between 7 pm and 9 pm.

As in the rest of the country, schools in Kakuma are also closed, but remote learning is not an option due to the lack of access to electricity, electronic devices as well as a poor learning environment due to overcrowded homes. Furthermore, due to the restricted movement imposed on refugees, they cannot travel to nearby towns to access remittances, which are vital for their survival.

The measures taken by the Kenyan government to support the poor and vulnerable during the COVID-19 pandemic though being useful, however, it has not fully considered the households with the lowest income. The Kenyan President provided a fiscal stimulus package to support Kenyans living below the poverty line. This package includes a 100% relief on income taxes for individuals whose monthly income is less than 24,000 Kenyan Shillings (225 US$).

Furthermore, the income tax rate has been reduced from 30% to 25% and turnover tax rate has been reduced from 3% to 1% for all micro, small, and medium enterprises while value-added taxes (VAT) has been reduced from 16% to 14%. These tax cuts might help businesses from collapsing, and increase the disposable income for individuals, hence boosting domestic demand and consumption. In addition, 10 billion Kenyan Shillings (93 million US$) has been devoted to supporting the elderly, orphans, and other vulnerable groups in the form of cash transfers. The government has created a COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund of 2 billion Kenyan Shillings from the recovered corruption proceeds to support the most vulnerable groups in these uncertain times.

The Central Bank of Kenya in collaboration with Safaricom (telecommunications provider) has waived mobile money transaction charges and increased daily limits for mobile transactions so that to encourage more people to send and/or receive money and to reduce cash handling in order to curb the spread of the virus. The Kenyan government has also developed an Education Emergency Response Plan to ensure continuity of learning in the short, medium, and long term. In the short term, it ensures the continuation of learning through remote learning programs while in the medium term, it will help students who had fallen behind in their studies to catch-up. In the long term, it focuses on improving the education system in Kenya so that it can be able to deal with risks and pandemics more smoothly in the future.

Regarding the spike in the cases of gender-based violence, the president ordered an investigation into these cases and the immediate prosecution of all criminals. However, refugees are not eligible for all the Kenyan government’s support measures due to their legal status.

Overall, the Kenyan government has taken reasonable measures to support the poor and vulnerable groups during this pandemic. However, many people who are in dire need of this support do not receive them. The various tax cuts that have been announced by the Kenyan government will only benefit a small percentage of Kenyans who pay taxes, but it will not be helpful for the majority of the population that relies on informal and agricultural jobs. The reduction in VAT is not beneficial for poor households since they either suffer from a reduced or a loss of income, a better policy will therefore be to abolish VAT on essential goods.

Also, the 10 billion Kenyan Shillings that have been devoted to supporting vulnerable groups will need to be increased and should cover more groups. However, Kenya cannot fund more significant fiscal intervention due to its’ very limited fiscal space and high public debt. Also, due to high corruption in Kenya, the government should be transparent and held accountable for using these funds to ensure that they end up benefiting the targeted groups and not in the pockets of corrupt leaders. Furthermore, these policy responses might not have helped the vulnerable groups due to the lack of a clear framework and good quality data to identify the most vulnerable.

All in all, the Kenyan government should work more on strengthening their social welfare programs, connecting more households to electricity, ensure access to clean water to everyone in the country, invest more in the education and health sectors as well as other basic needs that are crucial for improving the living standards of Kenyans and ensuring that they handle future risks and pandemics more smoothly. Furthermore, besides local efforts, support and aid from the international community are needed and debt relief.

This article was written by Dara Salih, Research Intern at CSEA