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How Efficient has the Government Handled COVID-19 Pandemic?

It has been over two years since the government enacted measures to combat the COVID-19 Pandemic. The most prominent of these measures that the government imposed in March 2020 include closing national borders, restricting domestic travel, banning public gatherings, closing schools, and later imposing a night-time curfew.

The pandemic being a global phenomenon affects many countries including Kenya. It is more than a health crisis and some studies show that it will lead to increased inequity and inequality in the economy in the medium term to long term. Therefore, the government needs to have put measures in place to address these effects.

Poverty is the most critical effect the pandemic has brought about, especially in lower-income countries, thereby affecting the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) on a global scale.

An important assessment of the efficiency of the government in handling the COVID-19 pandemic is essential. The pandemic has affected the core fabric of societies, communities and vulnerable groups. The response measures the government takes should ensure that no one is left behind.

Failure to implement immediate political and socio-economic responses will lead to long term consequences. It will jeopardise livelihoods and put other aspects of future development at risk. Therefore, any measures taken until now should help alleviate the shocks in the future.

The measures taken at the moment will also either safeguard development in the future or jeopardize it. It is therefore important for the government, the public sector, the civil society and the citizens to be engaged in chatting the way forward for this country.

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Efficiency of the government in handling the COVID-19 pandemic

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in Kenya cannot be downplayed. The pandemic has affected every facet of the country leading to unemployment, increased poverty, reduced household income, increase in dependency among other effects.

But has the government been efficient in handling the COVID -19 pandemic?

1. Vaccine Distribution

The government received the country’s first batch of the COVID-19 vaccines early this year. This was made possible by the delivery of 1.02 million doses of the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine, manufactured by the Serum Institute of India, through the COVAX initiative and donations of 100,000 shots from the Indian government.

The COVAX facility is a global initiative working with governments and manufacturers to ensure COVID-19 vaccines are available worldwide to both higher-income and lower-income countries.

The government planned the first phase of vaccinations to run up to June 2021 with a primary focus on high priority groups such as health workers, security personnel and teachers. The government then would expand the phase to those over 58 years a few weeks later. This increased the original target from 1.25 million people to about 3.2 million in the same period. However, a month later, only slightly above 280,000 people had been vaccinated.

The government initially faced reluctance from the high priority groups to take the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine, especially the health workers. It also dealt with the issue of importation of private vaccines which it suspended for fears of importation of counterfeit inoculations into the country.

Kenya is set to receive 24 million doses through the COVAX facility. It also planned to ensure 30 per cent of the population gets vaccinated by June 2023 based on the availability of 49 million vaccines it was able to secure. It would expand the target later with the acquisition of more vaccines

However, the government has been unable to meet its vaccination target. By October 15th, only 4.5 million people have received at least one dose of the vaccines and about 7.5 million vaccines have been received in the country. Even the government acknowledges the low uptake of vaccines and challenges the county governments to mobilize its eligible residents to get vaccinated.

Despite the low vaccination rates, the government has been efficient in distributing the vaccines by having regional depots. The counties can source their vaccines from these depots from where they can equip their local facilities and encourage uptake of the vaccines.

2. Allocation of resources for COVID-19 mitigation

When the pandemic began, the government underresourced essential areas that were meant to address and enforce the COVID-19 measures. In the financial year ending June 2020, the government did not allocate resources towards the Contingencies Fund and nor was any money spent out of that fund in that regard.

All budget lines relating to COVID-19 were also allocated only to one program in the health sector leaving other sectors deficient in funds. The implementation of COVID-19 budget lines also showed mixed results with full implementation in some and barely 50 per cent implementation in others. Information on targets set with regards to the same issue was underreported.

To make matters worse, issues of budget credibility arose with detailed information on how funds from the Kenya COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund were allocated and expended is not available, particularly regarding voluntary contributions, grants and donations to the fund.

The government also reduced the health sector budget significantly despite the dire need for more resources in the ministry to fight COVID-19.

The county governments were not spared either. Healthcare workers engaged in strikes to protest their dire working situations. They were working with limited resources such as PPEs and most had no medical cover. Many of them were infected with COVID 19 while some succumbed to the disease. Most of them were working without pay for several months (with some not being paid for six months!).

The county governments had not facilitated adequate COVID-19 training and sensitization for their health worker due to limited resources to carry out more tests at the counties. The low level of COVID-19 testing was due to a lack of skilled lab personnel, lack of adequate sample collection kits, insufficient reagents and some faulty test kits which were received as donations.

3. preventing socio-economic deterioration

The restrictions imposed by the government early last year to curb the spread of COVID-19 provided early signs of unemployment. Employment by private sector firms fell by 16 per cent between March and April as the Government of Kenya put in place a range of national containment measures. The employment levels in April 2020 compared to April of the previous year were a decline of 13 per cent.

Employment in the hospitality and tourism sector started to decline in March followed by a drop in employment levels across all sectors in April 2020. The manufacturing sector faced the biggest hit in absolute numbers of unemployment with over 31,000 jobs lost (13% of total employment). However, with a 33% drop in employment, the hospitality and tourism sector witnessed the most pronounced impact in relative terms.

The least impacted sectors (in terms of job losses) were the financial sector as well as wholesale and retail. Firms involved in accommodation, food services, and tourism activities on average saw a decline in the number of employees of close to 10% in April 2020 and an additional decline of 5% in May 2020.

Unemployment also largely affected small firms compared to large ones. Firms with less than five employees on average experienced a decline in their workforce as early as March 2020 compared to those with more than 250 employees. Older firms or those in sectors that rely on national and international travel also had to lay down a substantial number of workers to continue their operations.

The effect of unemployment on the economy has been a reduction in household incomes, increase in health inequalities, increase in dependants on a sole provider (the one employed or if their partner died from the virus) and a reduction in the levels of living due to the loss of income. Some studies also suggest that women have been the most affected by unemployment and loss of income.

The National Hospital Insurance Fund (NHIF) has also reported a substantial drop in the number of people making contributions to the funds, which can be blamed on the loss of income due to COVID-19.

Some of the measures the government had set in place to address socio-economic deterioration include tax relief for low-income earners, cash transfers of KES 10 Billion for the young, old and vulnerable in the society and a slight reduction in value-added tax (VAT). However, the pressure to remove the curfew due to the impact on the economy, which the government acquiesced and uplifted recently, indicates that most of these measures were not largely efficient to address the negative effects of socio-economic impact on the economy and society.

4. Corruption

The COVID-19 pandemic has seen macabre corruption scandals which have disgraced the government. The KEMSA scandal is the most prominent with allegations flaring up that government officials stole millions of dollars of vital medical supplies. KEMSA is under scrutiny concerning allegations that government officials and shady businessmen pilfered $400 million in public money allocated for medical equipment required to fight COVID 19.

Protests took place countrywide over the alleged misappropriation of COVID 19 funds. However, the protests were met with force by the police who threw tear gas and arrests were made under false charges of ‘violating COVID 19 protocols’. The Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO) described corruption in the procurement of Covid-19 personal protective equipment (PPEs) as unacceptable and likened it to murder.

At least five politicians, top government officials and directors of 50 companies linked to the Kemsa scandal were expected to be questioned at EACC headquarters. The KEMSA board appeared before Parliament and insisted that ’no money was stolen’. The deep-seated corruption is alarming because the government has been on a borrowing spree to get funds to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.

5. Human Rights Concerns

The government utilised the police to implement and enforce the COVID-19 restrictions such as the night curfew. However, this has led to gross human rights violations across the country. The mandate of the police also expanded to include including enforcing public health issues related to COVID-19.

Low-income areas experienced most police brutality. In the first five days alone of a curfew in Kenya, at least seven people were killed and 16 hospitalized as a result of police operations. Many more extrajudicial killings and physical assaults have been blamed on the police since the curfew began.

Yet, the government has not done enough to bring the culprits to justice or ensure the rule of law is followed in the enforcement of the COVID-19 measures.