COVID-19 Pandemic: a war Kenya must win together with other battles

April 24, 2020

President Uhuru Kenyatta stated that the country was at war with the new Coronavirus disease (COVID-19). In the photo medial personnel conducting COVID-19 test in kenya (Photo, UNDP Kenya)

The new coronavirus, also known as COVID-19 pandemic, has caused widespread global disruption to human activities, unlike outbreaks experienced in recent history. The World Economic Forum estimates that trip cancellations on international flights have so far cost the global aviation industry close to $900 billion. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates that almost 25 million jobs could be lost globally as a result of this crisis.

We are now living in a time where disruption to lifestyles, regardless of social status, is the new normal.  Governments are now desperately pleading with citizens to stay home while restrictions on travel have forced holidaymakers to put their plans on hold – the list is endless.

During his national address on 6 April, President Uhuru Kenyatta reminded us that “we are at war”, a war that “must be won” – we have already seen that winning this war will require all of us to make sacrifices.

While the Government of Kenya has set an example in the region in implementing robust “pharmaceutical” and “non-pharmaceutical” interventions, local civil society organisations as well as citizens are doing their part in helping contain the spread of the virus. Local manufacturers have also reorganized themselves to support national response efforts. But how will this war be won in totality?

This month, UNDP, UNICEF and UN Women agreed with our funding partners (Sweden, Finland and Italy) and the Government of Kenya to reprogramme US$3 million from our joint Devolution Programme towards the COVID-19 response. These funds will now be redirected towards activities that will complement national and county efforts essential for effective response to this global pandemic. Earlier in the month, the UN family together with the Government of Kenya launched a US$267.5 million appeal to respond to the most immediate and critical needs of 10.1 million people in the country. The appeal comes at a time where the country is already facing a host of other emergency issues such as floods and locusts.

The war will not be won by pouring huge sums of money into the response alone, but by coupling that with a strong institutional coordination mechanism that takes a whole of society approach to address both the pandemic and its consequential impacts. A multi-level, multi-layer, multi-stakeholder approach to coordinating the national response is critical for a successful “war outing” on COVID-19.

The Government has put in place a National Coordination Committee on the Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic which is a welcome development and is an important contribution to the coordination that will be required to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including SDG 3.3, to which Kenya has committed; - to end the epidemics of AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria and neglected tropical diseases and combat hepatitis, water-borne diseases and other communicable diseases, by 2030.

UNDP is providing support to ensure relevant government wings are supported adequately and in a timely manner. In addition to leading in assessing the possible vulnerabilities and impacts on Kenya of the COVID-19 pandemic, UNDP will also provide technical leadership in implementing the UN’s socio-economic recovery efforts, supporting the overall coordination role of the Resident Coordinator. This is in addition to earmarking more funds for reprogramming. As part of the UN family, we will accompany the Government of Kenya all the way until the war is won.  

Poverty is so feminized in Kenya – in 2019, the country was ranked 134 out of 162 countries on the Gender Inequality Index (GII). The disproportionate impact of this crisis on women will not only reverse progress made in empowering this important constituency but will also compromise the country’s ability to achieve many long-term development aspirations. We cannot allow this to happen.

Earlier this month, the UN Secretary General, António Guterres, reminded us that as economic and social pressures and fear grew as a result of COVID-19, the world was waking up to a horrifying surge in domestic violence.  Lockdowns and quarantines which are essential to suppressing COVID-19 have become traps for women with abusive partners – “for many women and girls, the threat looms largest where they should be safest.” With a strong link between a high prevalence of violence with higher rates of HIV infection, winning the COVID-19 war will still leave a large population battling with HIV and AIDS. UNDP will invest in government programmes that ensure that we do not ignore what is happening in homes while we disinfect the streets and other public places.  

Already around 20% of youth (20 – 24 years of age) in Kenya are unemployed, coupled with the fact that they are already 3 times more likely to be unemployed than their adult counterparts, the impacts of COVID-19 on them will begin to manifest soon due to the severe economic and labour market shocks brought about by this pandemic which has already significantly limited the ability of young entrepreneurs, innovators and startups to conduct their businesses normally. This disruption is coming at a time when the country’s tech-innovation potential is showing signs of robust growth. There is need to explore creating emergency employment opportunities for our young people. Through the SDG Accelerator Lab, we are identifying innovative solutions that have potential to address youth employment opportunities, and concurrently spur entrepreneurship and wealth creation.  

The pandemic we face today has potential to push countries off track in keeping their SDG promise. Although the pandemic is primarily a health issue, it is already affecting several other goals. For example, delivery of education is now on hold (Goal 4), economic activities have slowed down resulting in reduced income (Goal 8), food production systems have been disrupted, and now hunger looms (Goal 2). Heavy handedness in COVID-19 response may lead to a breakdown in law and order (Goal 16) while women face challenges in quarantine (Goal 5). Our youth face an uncertain future (Goal 10) and accumulating medical waste exposes the poor to risks of reinfection (Goal 3). As we package our response to this ever-evolving challenge, our focus must be on ensuring that we address the health issue head-on and all the related or resultant impacts it brings in our society. Achieving the SDGs will, therefore, require effective multi-stakeholder, multi-level and multi-sectoral coordination.

We are living in very unusual times, but we have an ambitious agenda in front of us – we are all in this together, and Kenya will win both the battles and the war, together.


The blog was first published in Sunday Standard, Kenya.