ECONOMIC IMPACT

Coronavirus not through with us yet

Though we seem to have dodged the bullet, it is still too early to conduct prayers of thanksgiving.

In Summary
  • From the very start it was well understood that there were two dimensions to the threat posed:
  • Infection and death. And then the consequences of the abrupt shutting down of economic activity

You may have seen the recent headlines on how no explanation has yet been found for the remarkably low levels of coronavirus infection rates as well as coronavirus-related deaths within Africa.

What do we mean by “remarkably low”?

Well, let us compare one of the early pandemic epicentres, New York State, and Kenya.

 

New York State has a population of about 19 million people. Kenya has an official population of about 47 million. At the height of the coronavirus outbreak in New York State, about 1,000 people were losing their lives to the virus every 24 hours. The Kenyan equivalent would be 2,400 people dying every 24 hours.

I should emphasise though that this terrifying death rate did not continue indefinitely. As National Geographic magazine reported in early July, “New York City hit its peak of cases in early April. But thanks to stay-at-home orders, huge investments in testing, and the wide adoption of preventative measures such as mask wearing, cases there have dropped precipitously and stayed flat so far.”

Still, this is New York, with some of the most modern and sophisticated medical services in the world, not to mention globally renowned research universities such as Columbia and NYU. Given our lack of sufficient ventilators, ICUs and other requirements for a serious engagement with the coronavirus (not to mention that “huge investment in testing”) I would extrapolate that if we had been hit as hard as New York was, we would have lost close to 50,000 Kenyans to Covid-19 over any such peak weeks or months.

Instead we are only now heading towards about 600 deaths. And while admittedly there is room for debate on the validity or accuracy of the official government statistics on the ravages of the coronavirus pandemic, there is a clear pattern suggesting that we have somehow been spared the worst of it.

Consider the anticipated economic consequences for a country that we Kenyans often benchmark ourselves against: India.if 400 million Indians who previously had some kind of viable livelihood may now be doomed to a downward spiral into poverty, then the similar figures for Kenya would be about 14 million of our people ending up in near-absolute destitution.

Even if you dismiss the official statistics that we are presented with daily by top officers of the Ministry of Health as essentially a work of creative fiction, you must admit that there is no way the government could have effectively concealed 50,000 Covid-19 related deaths if these occurred over just a few months.

And giving credit where it is due, there is no doubt that the kind of drastic actions taken by the government in the early months of the coronavirus – curfews and lockdowns; compulsory wearing of masks, hand sanitising, etc – surely must have helped to slow down the spread of the deadly virus.

This alone does not provide adequate explanation though, of the low rates of infection in Kenya, as well as most of sub-Saharan Africa.

 

And so the numbers for Covid-19 infections as well as deaths, have deeply puzzled all the most eminent minds in global biomedical research.

But though we seem to have – for reasons yet unknown – dodged the bullet thus far, it is still too early to conduct prayers of thanksgiving.

From the very start it was well understood by both individual experts and governments all over the world that there were two distinct dimensions to the threat posed by the pandemic. There was the immediate and direct threat of infection and death. And then there was the likely economic consequences of the abrupt shutting down of economic activity.

Consider the anticipated economic consequences for a country that we Kenyans often benchmark ourselves against: India. In a recent report, The Brookings Institute, a US-based think tank, has argued that “With most of the economy shut down, the fragility of India’s labour market was patent…After the economic stoppage, the International Labour Organization has projected that 400 million people in India risk falling into poverty.”

India, like Kenya, has a large part of the population confined to medieval agrarianism or informal sector jobs. And so, while admittedly the Indian economy is far more diverse and sophisticated than ours, I would all the same venture a guess that if 400 million Indians who previously had some kind of viable livelihood may now be doomed to a downward spiral into poverty, then the similar figures for Kenya would be about 14 million of our people ending up in near-absolute destitution.