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Millions of Kenyans can’t pay rent, buy food as virus fever rises, survey reveals

By Dominic Omondi | July 10th 2020 at 00:00:00 GMT +0300

Some of the tenants stand in front of their houses which were locked by a landlady after they defaulted June rent, at Mombasa Raha in Koyango, Kisumu town. [Kevine Omollo, Standard]

The Covid-19 pandemic continued to devastate Kenyans in May, leaving even more without jobs, and millions at risk of being kicked out of their homes due to inability to pay rent.

A new survey by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) showed that the fraction of individuals absent from work due to Covid-19-related challenges surged in May as the pandemic continued to leave behind a trail of economic destruction.

For every 10 families that said they were out of work, six blamed Covid-19 for their unemployment, an increase from just about half in April.

Another 15 per cent of the respondents cited temporary business closure.

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With reduced incomes, a lot of Kenyans struggled to pay rent, transport, or even put food on the table, revealed the survey which looks at the impact of the pandemic on health, labour market, transport costs and housing.

Major hit

Almost half of the respondents who were surveyed by the national statistician between May 2 and 9 were self-employed, while another 35 per cent were paid employees.

Already, economists and policymakers have projected that the economy will take a major hit due to the adverse effects of the pandemic, with the World Bank and IMF forecasting the national output to contract for the first time in 20 years.

But National Treasury Cabinet Secretary Ukur Yatani insists that the economy might grow at 2.5 per cent. Yesterday, Yatani acknowledged that some of the measures the government had implemented to contain the spread of the disease had triggered an economic crisis.  

“This report, therefore, contains information which will help the government to provide targeted response and for sound formulation of strategies and policies necessary for developing interventions to cushion the households,” said Yatani during a press briefing.

So far, the government has put together a stimulus package aimed at cushioning households and businesses against the crippling effects of the crisis. This includes a Sh54 billion economic stimulus programme that targets mostly small businesses.

Yatani noted that of those out of work, 77.8 per cent were unsure of when they would return, reflecting the uncertainty of the pandemic which has seen the government push the return-to-school date to next year.

In April, nine in 10 respondents said they were unsure of when they would return to work. The drop is due to the partial re-opening of the economy which has seen hotels and restaurants resume operations but under strict health and safety requirements.

Public transport vehicles ferrying passengers in to and out of Nairobi, Mombasa and Mandera have also resumed operations after President Uhuru Kenyatta lifted the cessation of movement orders that had affected those counties.

Domestic flights will resume on July 15 while international flights will take to the skies starting August 1. The Standard Gauge Railway has also announced that it will soon resume operations.

With reduced income, a lot of people struggled to pay rent, including 30.9 per cent who had never struggled and had religiously met their end of the bargain.

Generally, 37 per cent of respondents were unable to pay rent, with slightly over a third paying on time. A tenth of the households paid half rent.

Even as things got thicker for tenants, landlords got meaner. Only 0.7 per cent of tenants received a rent waiver or relief for May compared to 8.7 per cent in April.

Also revealed by the report is how Kenyans had started experiencing difficulties putting food on the table, with most of them saying that they experienced a surge in the price of food commodities -- although cost of living in May increased by 5.33 per cent compared to 6.01 per cent in April.  

Only eight in 10 of the respondents said they had experienced an increase in prices of food commodities. Most households, 78.1 per cent, had stocked sufficient food.

Most Kenyans, 77.6 per cent, had no problem accessing the market/grocery stores to purchase food, but for those who had, they cited closure of stores as their main reason.

Another survey by the World Bank revealed that half of Kenyan households are struggling to put food on the table following the economic effects of Covid-19.

“Almost all households surveyed (by the World Bank) in Kenya said that their income has decreased. About half said they are ‘cooking less frequently’ and have altered their diet,” the survey asserted.

With the rising cost of transport, a lot of Kenyans were forced to change their main means of transport, with six out of 10 opting to walk. Another 19.4 per cent opted to use boda-boda.

As a part of the social-distancing rules, the government has prohibited public transport vehicles from carrying passengers to their maximum capacity. Most matatus have hiked fares as a means to compensate for the reduced passenger numbers.

As a result, bus fare in some routes in Nairobi has more than doubled.

Most of those who struggled to pay rent, 61 per cent, cited reduced income as their main reason for the financial strain. Another 25.7 per cent blamed their rental woes on temporary lay-off or closure of business.

Majority of those who cited Covid-19-related reasons for unemployment, 75.9 per cent, blamed the government’s stay-at-home order. More women than men were affected by the stay-at-home advisory.

Another 21.4 per cent cited cessation of movement, with more men than women being affected by the directive of putting some counties under partial lockdown.

Partial lockdowns

Due to these financial constraints, Kenyans have resorted to various coping mechanisms to weather this financial storm.

“To overcome the financial distress caused by the pandemic, majority (41.9 per cent) of the households had cut on financial spending on commodities they could do without, while 14.8 per cent took loans from friends spending on commodities they could do without,” Yatani said.

Last month, the curfew times were altered from 7pm-5am to 9 pm-4am, a move he said would give people more time to undertake more economic activities.

Last week, President Kenyatta lifted restrictions of movement into and out Nairobi Metropolitan, Mombasa and Mandera, breathing some life into public transport sector that had been gutted by the containment measures.

Females, most of who have jobs in hotels and restaurants, were affected by stay-at-home advisory.

The huge jump in unemployment among women reflects the kind of jobs that they do, with most of them eking out a living in sectors that easily buckled under the weight of the pandemic as government implemented measures aimed at stopping the spread of the coronavirus.

And as experts have argued, the data also showed the extent to which this crisis has aggravated inequality, especially between the poor and the rich.

So, while the rich could comfortably work from home - and their children continue learning online- that was not the case for the poor and their children.

According to Economic Survey 2020, there were 2.9 million Kenyans that were assured of some regular paycheck, meaning they were in the wage employment.

However, majority of Kenyans, about 15 million, got their daily bread from the jua kali sector where wages are tiny and erratic and there is almost no job security.

The government has unveiled cash transfer programme targeting households in the slums on a weekly basis. Yatani said the CS, will also keep the slum economy running.

Covid-19 pandemic KNBS Rent default
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