Smart containment and social protection: Lessons from Kenya’s COVID-19 fight

Blog COVID-19, social protection, Informal sector, coronavirus, Food security, Lockdown and containment

During a time of high uncertainty, the Kenyan government has taken careful and considered steps towards containing COVID-19, while keeping as much of the economy functioning as possible. To work most effectively, the government’s smart containment strategy must be informed by data – more extensive COVID-19 testing is critical for this.

As with many other African countries, the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic were felt in Kenya weeks before the first case of COVID-19 in the country was confirmed. With about 20 percent of Kenya’s imports sourced from China and tourism earnings, remittances, and transport and logistics services significantly curbed, a recent report by Rand Merchant Bank identifies Kenya as having the highest economic COVID-19 risk exposure in Africa. The collapse of international oil prices has also hit Kenya hard, with the country’s first oil exports having only come online in 2019. To these difficulties are added: widespread flooding, which has resulted in almost 200 deaths in recent weeks, and the most damaging locust swarms in decades – phenomena that pose serious threats to East Africa’s food security.

Within this precarious context, the Kenyan government acted early to prevent a health crisis compounding the existing economic and food security challenges. On 15 March, with only three confirmed cases of COVID-19, Kenya suspended international flights from countries with reported COVID-19 cases and restricted entry into the country to only returning citizens and residents, who were required to self-isolate upon arrival. Schools and universities were closed, public gatherings banned, and all but essential workers in the formal sector requested to work from home.

With some 84 percent of the total workforce working in the informal sector, it has been necessary for the government to tailor lockdown restrictions to the local context. Rather than opting for complete lockdown, as seen in several European countries, a national dusk-to-dawn curfew was introduced alongside a strong communications campaign encouraging residents to stay at home unless for essential business. Recognising that many Kenyans live hand to mouth and have no option but to continue working outside their homes, matatu minibuses, the primary mode of public transportation, have been allowed to keep operating, although with requirements to disinfect vehicles frequently and to operate at no more than 60 percent of carrying capacity.

As COVID-19 cases increased, on 6 April the government took the decision to restrict the movement of people into and out of four counties where COVID-19 cases were concentrated – Nairobi, Mombasa, Kilifi, and Kwale – in order to prevent the spread of the virus to the rest of the country. The entry and exit ban for Nairobi came into effect with only three hours’ notice in a calculated effort to mitigate mass movement out of Nairobi. Within the four affected counties, additional restrictions have been placed on sub-county areas that have emerged as COVID-19 hotspots – notably Eastleigh in Nairobi and Old Town Mombasa. All businesses and public areas in these areas have been closed and movement of people into and out of these zones has been barred to reduce virus spread outside these areas.

Importantly, while movement of people has been restricted, movement of food supplies and other critical goods and services into and out of the four counties (and the two sub-county areas) remains largely unhindered, albeit with transport operators subject to physical distancing, mask-wearing, and other measures to curb virus transmission. This graded lockdown approach, with severity of restrictions based on risk stratification, focuses on curbing transmission in areas of higher COVID-19 prevalence while allowing greater freedom for economic activity in areas less impacted by COVID-19. This flexible approach involves government designing and implementing policies that vary across different areas, ensuring that the policy is appropriate for the local context, down to the sub-county level.

Existing data suggests that this approach has been successful in several respects:

  1. It has kept as much of the economy functioning as possible in order to mitigate economic hardships.
  2. It appears to have had at least some success in curbing virus spread. As of 13 May, there were 715 confirmed cases and 36 deaths and, while numbers continue to climb, we are not witnessing exponential growth. For a country with a population of 56 million people, these figures are laudable in the circumstances. However, there is an important proviso to this – testing has not been widespread and it is probable that prevalence is underestimated, potentially significantly. The availability of sufficient data to inform decision-making is critical for a graded lockdown approach to work, and it is essential that there be more extensive testing to enable accurate identification of COVID-19 hotspot areas.
  3. Food supply chains, at least those of domestically-produced foods, have remained relatively undisrupted, so far preserving food supplies to both suburbs and informal settlements in urban areas and minimising price increases. This situation must be closely monitored, however, given potential damage and disruption caused by flooding and locusts, which threaten food production.

Although food supply chains have been maintained, restrictions on economic activity have caused significant job losses and sharp declines in household income. This has made affordability the greatest challenge to food access. It is in this context that social protection measures become particularly important, as temporarily boosting the incomes of vulnerable households could ensure food access and prevent households from slipping into destitution.

Existing social protection programmes tend to be good at identifying the systematically vulnerable, such as those living in poverty, elderly individuals and orphans, and Kenya has a number of government and non-government-led social protection programmes. As part of its COVID-19 policy response, the government has allocated an additional 10 billion shillings for these established programmes and additional cash transfers have been made to beneficiaries in recent weeks. The abrupt economic shock induced by the COVID-19 epidemic, however, means that there are potentially many millions of newly vulnerable people who are not beneficiaries under existing programmes. Identifying these newly vulnerable people should be the government’s next challenge.

Here, Kenya’s widespread mobile phone ownership and use of mobile money is extremely valuable. Telecommunications data on mobile money transaction activity could help identify those who have experienced loss of income in recent weeks. Ensuring social protection eligibility extends to all residents in highly impacted areas should also be considered, as getting support out into communities quickly is more critical than accurate targeting right now. Here, too, telecommunications data placing individuals in these areas overnight over the last few weeks would be the fastest way to identify who lives in these areas. Making cash transfers using mobile money is already standard practice with social protection programmes in Kenya and reaching newly vulnerable people in this way would be simple, safe, and fast.

The cost of expanding social protection programmes this way, even temporarily, is considerable. Kenya’s public debt has grown in recent years and without the fiscal space to make resources available from own revenues, international assistance to help fund critical social protection measures is necessary. To this end, the International Monetary Fund has approved a KES 78.7 billion loan to support Kenya’s COVID-19 response and to backstop economic decline during the crisis. Effective and transparent spending of these funds to support vulnerable individuals and struggling firms would go a long way in ensuring that Kenya is able to navigate this unprecedented challenge.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this post are those of the authors based on their experience and on prior research and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IGC.