COVID-19 in Kenya: The Impact of the Pandemic on the Informal Economy and Settlements

COVID-19 pandemic has shocked the world and it is without a doubt having a profound impact on virtually all human aspects. While Africa was one of the last regions to report COVID-19 cases, the virus is now spreading fast. As of May 25, 2020, there were an estimated 112,290 confirmed COVID-19 cases, 3,359 deaths, and 44,920 recoveries, according to Africa CDC. All African countries have now confirmed a COVID-19 case, with Lesotho the latest country to report a positive case. In the Horn of Africa region, only Sudan, Djibouti, and Somalia have more cases than Kenya which has embarked on mass testing of both symptomatic and asymptomatic cases according to Kenya’s Ministry of Health. The largest economy in the East African region has also taken a raft of measures to curb the spread of the virus and this includes a 7:00pm to 5:00am curfew, cessation of movement in and out of ‘high-risk’ counties – Nairobi, Mombasa, Kilifi, Kwale, and Mandera, among other measures. With all good intentions, the knock-on effects of this pandemic, partly as a result of these measures, are unprecedented and are likely to disproportionately affect those in informal settlements.

Kenya’s Informal Sector

Kenya has a particular vulnerability as many people work in the informal sector. The World Bank estimates that 11.8 million Kenyans are employed in the informal sector against 2.4 million in the formal sector. 10 million of these live in slums according to Kenya 2019 census. After the first few cases were confirmed in Africa, GeoPoll, a research survey platform, conducted a survey and released the results on March 17, 2020, to determine perceptions and understanding of COVID-19 in Kenya. Respondents were most concerned about the financial impact of the virus. At best, businesses, both in the formal and informal sectors, have scaled-down, while some have laid-off workers. Exports have also been severely impacted given the ban on international flights. As a result, many people, mostly those in the informal economy, have lost their source of income. It is also worth noting that heretofore, Kenya was reeling from a weakened economy, explosive politics, locust invasion, and recurring droughts in some parts of the country. An initial projection of economic growth of 6.2 per cent by the Central Bank of Kenya in 2020 has been revised downwards 3.4 per cent due to these factors.

Domestic Violence

The World Bank conducted a study where they showed that unemployment is one of the factors that trigger domestic violence. The inability to provide for one’s family may make one experience more stress and in turn, lead to violence affecting mostly women with ripple effects on children. On April 6, 2020, the National Council on Administration of Justice reported an increased number of violent offences in the country. The restrictions imposed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic has made it harder for survivors to report abuse and seek help and, for service providers to respond efficiently. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN-OCHA) report on April 9, 2020, that there has been an increase in domestic and gender-based violence across informal settlements with a 35.8 per cent increase in sexual offences recorded since the virus reached the country.

Food Security

A stampede in Kibera, the largest slums in Kenya, over food donated by a well-wisher on April 10, 2020 is indicative of the deprivation and agony made worse by the pandemic. Most of those affected are women and children who cannot match boys and men in the scramble for the food. The scene resonates with millions across Kenya, but mostly those in informal settlements.

A number of counties have already taken measures to help ease the burden on local citizens such as tax relief, feeding programs, waivers on land rates among other initiatives. Despite all these, there are measures that can be put in place by policy makers to help slum dwellers. Firstly, water seems to be the biggest resource in fighting and preventing the spread of the deadly COVID-19 virus, the government can commission for more bore holes to be dug as well as ensure the city council water supply is not disrupted. There should also be a number of government vehicles and ambulances in place that will help in terms of ensuring transportation of people who may fall sick. In line with this, local healthcare amenities that are available in these areas should be well stocked with testing kits and trained personnel.  In terms of food supply, the government should control prices of basic commodities and to provide relief food where necessary such as the informal settlements across the country.

Financial Reprieve

At a monetary level, financial assistance coming from donors and well-wishers should be utilized transparently for the money to reach people who really need it in the slums. A commendable effort by the government would be to continually urge landlords/landowners to reduce rental payments as the situation is being dealt with.

This pandemic is having an unprecedented impact on the lives of people across the world. Hundreds of thousands of lives have been lost, the collapse of the economy has seen the loss of millions of jobs and businesses. The International Monitory Fund (IMF) has termed it the worst crisis since the Great Depression. As a nation, it will be particularly important to follow directives by the Ministry of Health and the World Health Organization in order to contain the spread of the virus. To address panic and fear among Kenyans, the government should continually facilitate robust public education on the coronavirus pandemic.

Photo: Residents of Kibera, the largest slum in Africa, create a stampede where food aid was being distributed due to COVID-19 pandemic in Nairobi, Kenya on April 10, 2020 (Photo Credit: AP/VOA)

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