Council Commentary

KENYA: Perspectives on Inequalities Magnified by COVID-19

This past year, the coronavirus pandemic has impacted every country, every community, and every person in this world – but not equally nor in the same ways. For communities who experience vulnerability and marginalization, because of structural barriers such as economic inequality, racism, harmful gender norms, and numerous other intertwining factors, these challenges have been exacerbated and inequalities even further exposed by the pandemic. 

As our epidemiologists, laboratory scientists, public health specialists and researchers have worked to produce relevant and timely evidence to support national health ministries and other government agencies around the world in their COVID-19 response strategies, they have seen first-hand the effects and impacts of COVID-19 on populations and communities experiencing the most marginalization and poverty. Many of our colleagues, especially those conducting research in the communities in which they live and work, see their work as key to addressing many of the historical inequities that are familiar to them. As part of a series we are sharing throughout this week, we asked a few of them to reflect on their work and how they hope, through research and evidence generation, that they will help address the various inequities that are being magnified by the pandemic.  

Learn more about work from our colleagues in Kenya: 

Faith Mbushi, Assistant Program Officer; and Karen Austrian, Senior Associate 

The inequalities in access to vaccines, treatment and prevention are geopolitical and may take some time to resolve. The focus of our research has been the disproportionate effects of 10 months of school closure on gains in educating the most vulnerable which have now been eroded by the pandemic. Our focus now is on girls who will no longer continue with their education because they feel over-age for their grade in school; pregnant girls and married girls who should be in school but are now faced with different challenges; as well as those whose families can no longer afford to send them back to school. Our research shows that boys who got gainfully employed during the school closures are also struggling to go back to school. 

We also know that poverty and household income loss are directly correlated with school drop outs, transactional sex and teenage pregnancies. Our research highlights the income loss and existing gaps in informal settlements in Kenya and advocates for education cash transfers to ensure that girls and boys remain in school. 

Additionally, our data suggest that adolescents were exposed to increased tension and violence while at home, leading to high anxiety and stress levels, and have consequently adopted negative coping mechanisms, further affecting their mental wellness. The long-term impacts of these mental health challenges remain unclear. 

We continue to experience an evidence gap in the number of children who did not return to school and the number of children and adolescents who require urgent emotional and psychosocial support to ensure that they lead productive lives. While Council colleagues around the world have conducted similar studies to ours in Kenya to determine the effects of the pandemic on access to educational resources and on psychological effects, which adds to the important, growing body of research on the effects of COVID-19 on children and adolescents, we must continue to broaden our reach and check in with affected individuals and communities to understand the full breadth of this issue. 

As our research has shown, those who were at a greater disadvantage before the onset of the pandemic were among those hardest hit. COVID-19 amplified the existing learning crisis, and the situation is likely to deteriorate further if adequate measures are not taken to combat the adverse effects of school closures during the pandemic on adolescents. 

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Read additional contributions addressing this topic from Council colleagues in BangladeshMexico and Pakistan from the past few days, and stay tuned to hear more from colleagues in India tomorrow. 

Learn more about the research collected worldwide by the Population Council to address the populations at the greatest disadvantage and inform responses to the COVID-19 pandemic on the new Humanitarian Task Force site.