Kenya’s Case of Covid-19

When Covid-19 reached East Africa in March, the Kenyan government swiftly imposed quarantines and restricted movement into and throughout the country. These measures contributed to the slow of the virus’s spread—the country’s current caseload stands at 3,727 with 104 deaths and 1,286 recoveries—but it did not prevent the near collapse of Kenya’s once-robust economy.

Kenyans are vigorously criticizing their government’s handling of the crisis. Ironically, that spirited dissent is a sign that political freedoms in Kenya have withstood this crisis. For Kenya, the main lesson of Covid-19 is how tightly the country is linked to the global economy. For the United States, the lesson is that now is the time to assist Kenya and boost relations with this critical African partner.

Q1: How has the Kenyan government reacted to the pandemic?

A1: The Kenyan government—led by President Uhuru Kenyatta—has moved quickly to contain the Covid-19 outbreak. Starting on March 25, the government closed airports, schools, churches and mosques; tightened border controls; restricted public gatherings; imposed severe limitations on movement around the country; and imposed curfews in urban areas. This may have helped slow the spread of the virus but at a cost. For millions who live in urban slums or rural poverty, social distancing is not an option. Their livelihoods depend on daily face-to-face interactions. Many Kenyan commentators on social media have denounced harsh and chaotic police enforcement of public health directives.

Q2: What is the economic cost for Kenya?

A2: It is enormous. GDP growth for 2020 is estimated to fall to -5 percent if the outbreak is not effectively contained, representing a loss of $10 billion in GDP. Whole sectors of the economy have shut down. Agriculture exports are down more than 50 percent. The horticultural sector has lost half its exports, half its value, and laid off most of its workforce of 75,000. Tourism and the hospitality sector—comprising some 1.4 million jobs and 8.8 percent of Kenya’s GDP—has collapsed. An estimated 50 percent of the Kenyan workforce is either laid off or locked out from their jobs. Exacerbating the economic downturn are epic locust invasions and floods.

Rating agencies have downgraded Kenya’s outlook from “stable” to “negative” due to worries about its ability to service an outsized foreign and domestic debt burden. Despite that, the Kenyatta government has ordered across the board tax cuts, loosened rules on bank lending, and increased social spending to ease the impact on ordinary citizens. The effectiveness of this stimulus is not yet clear.

Q3: Some governments have used the pandemic to tighten their hold on power and restrict opposition activity. Is that the case in Kenya?

A3: Many Kenyans fault the government’s overall response to the crisis, especially incidents of police abuse of civilians. In the past few months, demonstrators have taken to the streets to protest lockdown-related police brutality, which has disproportionately affected lower-class Kenyans. But violent policing is unfortunately the norm in Kenya. It is not specific to the Covid-19 emergency. Indeed, the frequency and extent of public criticism of the Kenyan government in both conventional and social media is a signal that free expression in Kenya, even in this time of crisis, is alive and well. Unlike in other countries, including the United States, there is little evidence that incumbents in Kenya are trying to weaponize the crisis to score political gains.

Q4: How will Kenya emerge from this crisis?

A4: If any proof were needed, this crisis shows Kenyans just how tightly their fortunes are tied to those of the global economy. Kenya will recover when the global economy does. In the meantime, the United States could take the following steps.

  • Invest in health care capacity. The United States could begin to invest in building capacity both at the Africa Center for Disease Control and among the many Kenya-based partners of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Setting up robust health systems is critical not only in curbing Covid-19 over the next few years but in strengthening Kenya’s comprehensive health responses as a country.

  • Reshape the economic response. The United States should consider leading a G7 effort to ease debt burdens and mobilize new financial support for Kenya and other African nations struggling to put in place social safety nets.

  • Prioritize trade. The United States should support key sectors of the Kenyan economy (e.g., tourism, horticulture exports) through direct aid (e.g., conservation, wildlife protection) and preferential access to U.S. markets. U.S. officials should consider the economic effects of Covid-19 on sectors across Kenya when negotiating the U.S.-Kenya free trade agreement.

Steps like these would deepen the U.S.-Kenyan economic partnership and hasten Kenya’s rebound from the pandemic’s devastating effects. Sadly, there appears to be little appetite in Washington for such forward thinking.

William M. Bellamy is senior adviser (non-resident) with the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. and Warburg Professor of International Relations at Simmons University. From 2003-2006, he served as U.S. ambassador to Kenya.

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