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Counting the cost of the pandemic

Police Officers enforcing curfew restrictions on the first day of curfew in Mombasa. PHOTO: File

It is almost a year since the first case of COVID-19 was reported in Kenya. In the few days preceding that announcement, the government put in place measures aimed at ensuring that the country was prepared enough to deal with the pandemic. Perhaps the most important was the establishment of the National Emergency Response Committee through an executive order issued on 28th February, some 15 days before we would record our first case.

The job of this committee was clearly cut out. Unlike their counterparts in countries like China, The USA, Germany, UK and Italy – they had already seen the effects of what they were preparing to deal with. They were aware of how deadly this “enemy” was. Perhaps the only thing working against them was time. Eight days later, this outbreak would be declared a global pandemic.

There is no doubt that if we had acted much faster; banned flights from some of the affected countries, initiated quarantine procedures for passengers travelling from outside Kenya – we would have slowed the spread of the pandemic. But swift and decisive action taken by the government, such as the closure of schools, limiting of public gatherings, enforcement of social distancing rules in public transport and cessation of the inter-county movement helped slowed the spread of the virus. Some of these measures, however, came with undesired social and economic impacts.

The cumulative number of infections is currently flirting with the 100,000 mark. We have also regrettably lost 1,734. While every loss of life is one too many, we have done so much better than South Africa with over 1.3 million cases and more than 37,000 deaths. Morocco has reported over 450,000 cases and 7,000 deaths, Tunisia has over 180,000 cases and 5,000 deaths, while our neighbour Ethiopia also has over 130,000 cases with over 2,000 deaths according to the most recent data from WHO.

Before March 13th, 2020 the day Kenya announced that it had its first COVID-19 patient, Pius Odhiambo was a waiter at one of the restaurants that have served local delicacies to residents of Kisumu for decades. Even though the job did not pay much, he could afford to pay school fees for his children and younger siblings and put decent meals on the table every day.

“People who ate there loved my service, some of them had grown to become my friends over the years. I got good tips, most of the time it was even more than what my employer paid me,” explains Pius.

He lost his job when his employer had to shut down due to a government ban on eating in restaurants as one of the measures put in place to contain the pandemic.

“A lot of us lost our jobs that very day, we were told we will be called when things normalize, it is almost a year now. I have been able to find jobs even after eateries reopened for seating clients. Very few of us were taken back, the owner of the restaurant says he only needs a few waiters to serve the clients who still come to the restaurant,” he says.

Maureen Ojijo owns an events company in Kisumu. She made a living providing catering services for parties, funerals and weddings. Even though she did not have permanent employees, she regularly hired the services of at least twelve people to assist her whenever she had jobs – which was like every other weekend.

“Our business is large gatherings, that is what the government banned,” she says.

Today, both Maureen and Pius are trying to pick up the pieces of their lives. After struggling to find a new job, Pius is trying his luck as an attendant at a carwash in one of the estates in Kisumu. It is a job he is still learning, and there aren’t that many cars to wash every day. On the other hand, Maureen has gone back to cooking at events, but she says, “the jobs are far in-between” and the sizes of the crowds she cooks for are smaller, so are her earnings.

“If you treat this disease normally, it will treat you abnormally.” These words from health Minister Mutahi Kagwe that sort of became the punchline that defined the daily press briefing by government officials have become the reality for several others like Pius and Maureen. This Pandemic has treated them abnormally, but not because they “treated it normally.”

In both instances, they found themselves as casualties of the measures put in place by the government to contain the disease.

On the 25th of March 2020, the government announced a raft of new measures aimed at providing relief to businesses and individuals hit by the economic shocks of this pandemic. This included a 100% tax relief for persons earning less than Sh. 24,000, reduction of PAYE from 30% to 25%, reduction of corporate tax from 30% to 25%, reduction of turnover tax from 3% to 1% and the reduction of VAT from 16% to 14%.

Other measures included temporary Suspension of all listing for all persons including companies, whose loan account fall overdue or are in arrears, by the Credit Reference Bureau (CRB). There was an order to Ministries and Departments to cause the payment of at least Sh 13 billion of the verified pending Bills, within three weeks from the announcement. Sh 1 billion from the Universal Health Coverage was also set towards the recruitment of
additional health workers to support the management of the spread of the pandemic. There also was an allocation of Sh 10 billion to the elderly, orphans and other vulnerable members of our society through cash-transfers by the Ministry of Labour and Social Protection, to cushion them from the adverse economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

These measures, however, only benefitted a small section of the population – either by design or through default. The tax reliefs for instance only benefited a section of Kenyans in formal employment. These were like a drop in the ocean when businesses were closing and over 500,000 job losses were being reported in the first month alone.

A paper published by the Institute of Economic Affairs Kenya in September 2020 predicted a contraction of the economy, productivity losses, and social welfare losses as direct shocks of the pandemic. While these figures are interesting to look at or even throw around when discussing the impacts of the pandemic, they take a completely different meaning when you put faces like Maureen’s and Pius’ to them. When you think about their dependants and the untold suffering that many more like them have had to go through in the past year.

Today, as we move towards slowly reopening the economy, and with the new hope of a vaccination programme roll-out in the coming weeks, there will be more debates like this on how effective the government response to this pandemic was. The government in its usual character will pat itself on the back, the question is if that pat on the back will be a deserved one or not. On that, the jury is still out.



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