Overview of the Crisis
Kenya reported its first case of COVID-19 on 12 March 2020 and, as at 7 April 2020, 172 cases had been confirmed and 6 deaths reported. The Government of Kenya has taken a number of measures to curb the spread of the virus, including implementing a curfew, restricting movement out and into four counties, including Nairobi Metropolitan, and closing most of the urban and rural markets to enforce social distancing. However, these measures, along with the global economic shock caused by the pandemic, are expected to generate new needs, requiring an immediate and urgent response.
The COVID-19 pandemic—which is occurring against a backdrop of increased humanitarian needs due to back-to-back drought, floods and a locust upsurge—will exacerbate existing vulnerabilities across Kenya, particularly for the urban poor, migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. Some 56 per cent of Kenya’s urban population live in informal settlements and are at increased risk of contracting COVID-19 due to inadequate access to water and sanitation services and cramped living conditions. Nearly 500,000 refugees live in camps in the country. In the event of a potential spread of COVID-19 to refugee camps, including Dadaab and Kakuma, there is high concern that crowded living conditions and poor access to health, water and sanitation services could lead to high infection rates. There are about 19.5 million poor people in Kenya (14 million in rural areas, 1.3 million peri-urban and 4.2 million core-urban and informal settlements).
Female-headed households who constitute 30.2 per cent of the poor population are at particularly high risk. Likewise, workers in the informal economy may not be able to stay at home when they are sick without paid sick leave. People living in or near poverty often lack disposable cash and cannot easily stockpile food in times of pandemics. Hunger, malnutrition, pneumonia and other forms of health-related shocks and stresses compound vulnerability to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Women, people with disabilities, the elderly and people living with HIV all face unique challenges due to the outbreak, requiring immediate gender-sensitive and age-sensitive action. Women, who already shoulder the majority of care work in Kenya, are facing increased demands as more families stay home due to quarantine and containment measures, including children who have returned home in the face of school closures. If family members fall ill, women are more likely to provide care for them, putting themselves at higher risk of exposure as well as sacrificing their time. People with disabilities (particularly girls and women) may be at heightened risk of exposure to COVID-19, due to inaccessible information about prevention and assistance, barriers to accessing health services, and difficulties accessing WASH services to ensure the use of prevention measures such as handwashing. Further, people with disabilities may be disproportionately affected by social and economic impacts due to a reliance on service providers for daily tasks of living, a lack of access to remote/distance-learning options, and pre-existing isolation and marginalization. People living with HIV in Kenya may face challenges in accessing treatment.
The pandemic is expected to exacerbate existing humanitarian needs, including food insecurity, due to economic downturn and loss of income, particularly for the most vulnerable. An estimated 1.3 million Kenyans are already severely food insecure (IPC Phase 3 or 4), and in need of immediate humanitarian assistance, according to the 2019 Short Rains food security assessment (SRA 2019) conducted in February 2020 in the 23 Arid and Semi-Arid Land (ASAL) counties.
Out of 7.22 million children under age 5 across the country, nearly 1.8 million are stunted (26 per cent); 290,000 are wasted (4 per cent); and 794,200 (11 per cent) are underweight. Nine counties have a prevalence of stunting above 30 per cent, while children in Nairobi face significant acute malnutrition, with 44,237 children in Nairobi identified as acutely malnourished (80 per cent in the informal settlements), according to March 2020 SMART survey, and one in three children under age 5 in the Nairobi informal settlements stunted. Measures undertaken to contain the spread of COVID-19 will likely lead to loss of income and disruption of access to food, with particularly adversely affects for people living in informal settlements. The closure of markets and business ventures has also impacted the rural population and made it difficult for agro-pastoral communities to access agricultural inputs, such as seeds and fertilizers, at a very critical period of the planting for the long rain season.
Protection risks are likely to increase as people adopt negative coping mechanisms—such as transactional sex; early marriage and child labour—due to loss of livelihoods. The closure of schools as part of measures to control the COVID-19 outbreak could lead to increased incidents of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), teenage pregnancy and child marriage, and may result in more permanent school dropout rates, particularly of girls. An increase in domestic and gender-based violence has already been reported, with a 35.8 per cent increase in sexual offences recorded since the virus reached the country.
The closure of schools for an extended period will impact children’s well-being and have a longer-term impact on inequalities, as the most vulnerable families may not send children (particularly adolescent girls) back to school. Over 15.2 million learners have been affected by the closure of schools. While distance-learning mechanisms are being attempted, they will not reach all children and youth, and those without internet access or adult supervision will be disadvantaged. Children on the move are already disproportionately affected by learning disruptions, and they are at risk of exclusion from online or other alternative learning options. As schools close, school lunches and other support services are no longer available for the poorest children, with potential consequences for their nutrition status.
The COVID-19 situation and response may expose populations to human rights abuses and further harm. There is a risk that heavy handed enforcement and failure to respond to the basic needs of the people, especially food and water, might trigger protests, civil unrest and violence. Prevention and response strategies and actions therefore require strong observance of human rights standards and gender equality standards, guarding against the use of excessive force by law enforcement agencies and ensuring that the needs of most vulnerable populations -people with disabilities, youth and women- are integrated into COVID-19 planning and response at national and county levels.
The period ahead—which will see Kenya facing the consequences of COVID-19, an elevated risk of flooding and the spread of desert locusts —will be precarious and challenging. At the same time as COVID-19 cases are rising, the Kenya Meteorological Department forecasts above-average rains through to May, which could cause floods and mudslides, further heightening the risk of water and vector-borne diseases, in addition to affecting access to clean water, sanitation and health care for affected households. More than 1,100 households have already been affected by floods in Kisumu, Homabay,
Siaya and Busia counties, and parts of central region as of April 2020, according to the Kenya Red Cross Society. The heavy rains have also created conducive conditions for a new upsurge of desert locusts, which could pose a threat to the livelihoods and food security of an estimated 3.1 million vulnerable people—especially if the locusts spread further into key production regions.