WHO IS VULNERABLE?

Uhuru's Covid-19 interventions dangerously leave out rural poor

Under the burden of opportunistic coronavirus, almost anyone is vulnerable in rural Kenya.

In Summary

• Defining vulnerable Kenyans is problematic, limited to traditional categories on basis of redundant poverty indexes that don’t consider new qualifiers from economic disruptions such as Covid-19.

• Thousands of middle-level and manual workers are jobless as businesses downsized or closed, adding to the vulnerable bulge.

President Uhuru Kenyatta with members of the National Emergency Response Committee on Covid-19 at State House, Nairobi on April 6, 2020.
President Uhuru Kenyatta with members of the National Emergency Response Committee on Covid-19 at State House, Nairobi on April 6, 2020.
Image: PSCU

To caution vulnerable Kenyans from grave impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, the government announced some measures to cushion the vulnerable in society.

These interventions include a sh10 billion package for the urban poor, Sh8.7 billion for the on-going cash transfer programme for the elderly (assumedly also orphans, widows, people living with disabilities and people living with HIV-Aids).  People living with disabilities also got their Sh500 million arrears.

However, the old, tired, abused and corrupt cash-transfer programme appropriated by officialdom to lockout deserving cases by recruiting undeserving cases is still the disbursement method.

Last week, this “system” was at work. Nyumba Kumi officials were knocking on doors in Kisumu’s slums indiscriminately registering people who got a cash stipend of Sh2,500 ahead. How’ll we ever know how many dud names were listed?

President Uhuru Kenyatta also signed into law a raft of tax deductibles ranging from zero-rated PAYE to lower VAT. The beneficiaries are meant to be “vulnerable” in the low-income bracket and casual labourers, many of them out of work already.

But defining vulnerable Kenyans is problematic, limited to traditional categories on basis of redundant poverty indexes that don’t consider new qualifiers.

Thousands of middle-level and manual workers are jobless as businesses downsized or closed, adding to the vulnerable bulge. SME traders and employers of menial workers closed shop becoming vulnerable themselves.

The situation is worse for the rural poor yet they receive no mention in Covid-19 interventions. According to the 2019 Census, out of 15 million Kenya urban population, 10 million are poor. But we’re uncertain about variables used, number and condition of the poor out of 33 million rural Kenyans, who may be worse off than their urban counterparts.

The rural poor present unique challenges to policymakers. They may be the rural unemployed, dependants, marginalised and migrant labourers. They may be the known elderly, orphans, PLDs and those living with HIV.

But the majority rural poor are hidden from statisticians; those with life-threatening diseases, culturally stigmatised, isolated and abandoned, and the food insecure. Under Covid-19 strategies, they’ve added disadvantage of being inaccessible to sensitisation and preventive kits, and are unlikely to get relief supplies.

In “normal” times, rural poor are dependants of their struggling urban benefactors through M-Pesa. With the economic disruption, that urban support base is gone and indeed most are now unemployed migrants upcountry.

Under the burden of opportunistic coronavirus, almost anyone is vulnerable in rural Kenya. They’re the worse off for lack of or poor health infrastructure. Hospitals are glorified dispensaries without drugs. There’re those for whom remittances from urban relatives have stopped. Given that rural incomes are usually low compared to urban ones, the suffering is immense.

Under the dark clouds of coronavirus, 21 counties lack basic facilities for screening, testing, isolation and ICU equipment. In a bold statement recently, the Council of Governors warned counties can’t manage a Covid-19 outbreak for lack of ICU facilities, protective kits for health workers, and an untrained health workforce.

Add to this energy and water scarcity, lack of chemicals for fumigation, and the unresponsive rural population to Covid-19 guidelines. All these lead to a horrid conclusion; there is a health pandemonium waiting to wreck counties, especially when statistics show infections are spreading in counties.

President Uhuru extended the curfew for another month. He promised stringent action should Kenyans continue to ignore safety rules. That’s a hint to a total lockdown given the increase in infections. Other than the inability to prevent and contain coronavirus, there is the nagging issue of relief resources to cushion the vulnerable. An example using the 2019 Kenya Population and Household Census will suffice.

Vihiga county, a miniature area of 564Sq.Km and 600,000 population, is densely populated at 1,047 persons per Sq. Km composed of 143,365 households with an average household of 4.1 persons.

Poverty levels are underestimated at 42 per cent. For the actual number of the poor, you multiply 143,365 households by 42 divided by 100 resulting in 60,000 poor households. Multiply 60,000 households by 4.1 persons per household results in 240,000 individual poor folks.

Census 2019 says 531,629 Vihiga folk are rural, occupying a tiny swathe of 537Sq.Km with 991 persons squeezed in a Sq. Km. That leaves only 27Sq.Km for occupation by 60,000 urban population at a rate of 2,152 persons per Sq. Km. These are terrifying conditions for rapid spread of the virus; yet, unfortunately, the 2019 Census fails to capture differentiation of what amounts to rural in this congested hamlet.

Meanwhile what Vihiga demography demonstrates is a herculean task for the county government alone to attempt to look after 240,000 vulnerable people in need of relief for an indefinite period. Rough calculations show Vihiga will require Sh300 to feed each of the 240,000 poor people per day amounting to Sh72 million per day, Sh2.232 billion per month and Sh6.696 billion for three months against an annual revenue of about Sh4.5 billion. Yet the outrageous figures do not include Covid-19 healthcare costs.

It is unfathomable that even national government support will ameliorate tribulations counties could face under a virus outbreak. This is why the enumeration of the vulnerable should be correctly tabulated at subcounty, ward and Village level against available Covid-19 resource basket.

Monies should be spent now on prevention - distribution of masks, water, soaps and sanitisers.  Furthermore, National Covid-19 Response Committee needs to redirect donor and corporates contributions to dire areas like Vihiga to prevent Armageddon.

Kabatesi is a political adviser, Vihiga county government, and  a communications and governance expert