The United Nations Deputy Secretary General, Ms Amina Mohammed recently commended “Kenya’s exemplary role in its response to COVID-19 and in advancing Agenda 2030”.
On Monday, 28 September 2020, the President of Kenya, Uhuru Kenyatta hosted a national conference on COVID 19. I was invited to speak about Kenya’s response, and without equivocation I restate what I said–Kenya deserves an A + rating.
When the COVID-19 pandemic struck Asia, Europe and the US, experts began to worry about what it would do to poor countries, with predictions of thousands of deaths, serious infections as well as the near-total collapse of already ailing health systems.
How would Africa, characterised by crowded living conditions, widespread poverty and a lack of basic hygienic facilities deal with such a devastating and largely unknown pathogen?
Months later, such horror scenarios have not materialised and the question has changed to why most of Africa is seeing comparably less devastation. As explained by President Uhuru Kenyatta during the National Covid-19 Conference, “the reason why we have managed to flatten the curve is because Kenyans have exercised an impressive civic responsibility and duty.”
A reality that tends to be lost in all the discussions about this novel coronavirus in Kenya is just how much pummelling the country’s social and economic structures have received lately. 2020 was a particularly difficult year for Kenya. A triple crisis, coming on the heels of a protracted period of droughts, a cholera epidemic and not to underestimate the spectre of cross-border terror attacks, which dented one of Kenya’s biggest foreign exchange earners-tourism.
Consider this. In 2017, nearly half of the counties of Kenya was reeling from the effects of probably the worst drought in the last 20 years. With nearly 3.4 million people food insecure, Kenya’s food security prognosis looked gloomy, with climate change and natural resource depletion set to pose even greater risks in the long term.
Often unnoticed is the insidious effect on the country’s economy, with experts estimating that there have been, “12 serious droughts since 1990”. The average annual costs of the damage caused estimated at around KHS 125 billion ($1.25 billion) — with each drought reducing the country’s Gross Domestic Product by an average of 3.3 percent.
The two consecutive national elections in 2017 also took a massive financial toll.
Given the dire financial situation, it is quite remarkable, the resilience, tenacity and optimism, Kenya has displayed in the face of such adversity, and done so with their head held high, with stoicism and compassion in its fight against the triple threat.
Since the beginning of the year, Kenya has gone through a series of unprecedented crises, where within six months it has experienced the worst desert locust invasion in 70 years, heavy unusual flooding that has left scores of people dead and thousands displaced, and the pandemic that is taking a toll on health services and the economy.
Aware of the technological and financial handicaps facing the health sector, the government has responded commendably in leading the fight against COVID-19, from mandating physical distancing to wearing of masks, promoting hand and respiratory hygiene, promptly dealing with rumours, to specialised facilities in hospitals, to working with industry to deliver local equipment such as PPEs, to delivering economic relief to impacted families. And above all not allowing politics to hijack the wisdom of science.
In about six months after the first case was reported, Kenya increased the number of infectious diseases isolation beds from eight to just over 7,000 across the country, thus keeping the casualty rates low. This was a remarkable feat achieved through unity of purpose between the national and county governments.
The government rolled out moderate stimulus packages to help families ride out the economic turbulence and cushion companies from financial shocks. The Treasury instituted tax relief for low-income earners and reduced VAT rates as well as corporate sales tax for businesses. In a country already facing slow GDP growth, these were commendable actions of national self-sacrifice and coming together in times of crises.
When you look at some of the most developed countries in the world, buckling to the microscopic and highly virulent coronavirus and their national responses are properly examined, Kenya does score an ‘A+’ in how quickly and decisively the government acted in the COVID-19 crisis. Measures such as travel restrictions, curfews and school closures were implemented early in the country, before the number of infections rose.
As testament to the spirit of coming together to confront a common adversary, there was broad support from the public for these measures. In social media and elsewhere, citizens were quick to express responsible outrage where they felt those responsible for the response at various levels were not keeping to the expected standards.
This grit and determination to rise to the occasion even where resources are hard to come by was key in getting on board international donor agencies and private sector to mobilise funding to support the national response. The UN in Kenya repurposed $45 million from the United Nations Development Assistance Framework (UNDAF) towards the COVID response, and deployed over 150 staff and volunteers to the government response structures.
In partnership with the Government of Kenya, the UN launched a Flash Appeal to mobilize $267.5 million to support more than 10 million vulnerable people affected by the pandemic, of which nearly US$ 60 million was raised. An additional US$ 10 million dollars was allocated by the UN Secretary General, Mr. Antonio Guterres, to construct a new specialized 100 bed COVID 19 hospital in Nairobi, which will remain as additional capacity even after the pandemic is over.
The UN in Kenya has prepared a COVID-19 socioeconomic response and recovery plan to address the health care system, social protection, employment opportunities and social cohesion. The recovery plan will be implemented in the next two years and will cost $155 million to focus on recovering better from the pandemic for the Sustainable Development Goals.
The country is still in the maelstrom of the pandemic. The devastating consequences of the pandemic have not fully played out and important challenges remain, some wrought by the pandemic but many that continued long before, such as high health care costs for millions of Kenyans, gender inequalities, widespread poverty, youth unemployment, environmental degradation, corruption and terrorism.
The country must converge at every level to address these threats today or suffer the consequences tomorrow. Recovery will be made much tougher by the economic toll of COVID-19 as well as an exhausted and depleted health system.
Still, the pandemic has shown that Kenya can overcome partisanship, think anew and work on short and longer-term sustainable development priorities towards ‘building back better’, with more resilience to future shocks.
As the UN Deputy Secretary General, Ms Mohammed said, “I am convinced that Kenya will continue demonstrating that results and transformation are possible and I call upon all of you to double your efforts to invest at scale in those critical interventions that will unlock benefits across all the goals, to make bold choices, to take decisive action and to leave no one behind in your pursuit of a better future”.
Kenyans can be fully assured of the commitment of the United Nations to overcome every adversity, leapfrog socio-economic recovery and progress to realise Vision 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals.
Siddharth Chatterjee is the United Nations Resident Coordinator to Kenya. He has served in various parts of the world with UNFPA, UNICEF, UNDP, UNOPS, UN Peacekeeping and the Red Cross Movement. A decorated Special Forces veteran, he is an alumnus of Princeton University. Follow him on twitter-@sidchat1