Use Covid-19 lessons to keep disasters at bay


Health personnel collect samples for Covid-19 testing. PHOTO | JEFF ANGOTE | NMG


  • In Kenya, disaster management policies at national and county levels need to be more people-centred and adaptative to emerging threats.

Emerging disasters such as Covid-19 and existing ones such as floods and fires pose a major threat to Kenya’s Vision 2030 and could also erode development gains realised over decades of hard work.

Despite these ensuing threats, the country has often attended to disasters as emergencies rather than threats that require preparedness and disaster proof development planning. In the phase of Covid-19, we see a new sense of consciousness about the threats and the urgency of putting in place effective systems to prepare better for disasters.

Covid-19 experience has exposed the emergency nature of disaster management in Kenya. The response to the pandemic in many African countries has been largely reactive.

There have been no clear grounded policy frameworks to guide collective actions. Despite having known that the pandemic was spreading, Kenya took longer than expected to put in place restrictions that could have curbed the virus. This has revealed lack of preparedness not only for emerging and unknown disasters.

This emergency response has brought various consequences: first, it has created new economic vulnerabilities as technical and financial resources have been redirected to address the pandemic.

At the macro level, governments have had to redirect budgets from other sectors to the Covid-19 emergency funds. This reallocation of funds is likely to expose other sectors that are struggling from other challenges such as climate change and policy deficits.

At micro-level, the emergency lockdowns have resulted in loss of income, broken food supply chains, and disintegrated SMEs among others. These losses create new livelihood vulnerabilities and widen economic inequalities.

Second, there has been double exposure at the local communities, especially the urban poor living in slumsstruggling with, among others, poverty, food insecurity, poor sanitation, social inequalities and gender discrimination, and policy exclusion.

In Kenya, disaster management policies at national and county levels need to be more people-centred and adaptative to emerging threats.

To support people-centred preparedness, data/evidence is required for adaptive and pro-poor planning. This is because the fight against disasters in Kenya and sub-Saharan Africa has often been slowed down by lack of clear understanding and data on local dynamics.

Adopting data to the local context rarely happens especially for the urban poor who have little say in defining and co-production of data/research and policies.

Establishing community-driven data/knowledge systems is necessary to inform context specific and adaptive response to disasters. The country has made some efforts in this direction by adopting open data portals, which can be updated with information on different disaster risks.

Furthermore, the country should adopt action plans that address multiple disasters and their interconnectedness.

The Covid-19 situation has shown that disasters are not just the occurrences we see, but more detrimental pandemics could emerge and build on existing disasters to create more havoc.

For instance, the current flooding in Kenya, which has resulted in deaths and displaced people, has also increased vulnerability to Covid-19 as displaced families are forced to seek refuge in over-crowded centres with little distancing.

Political will

Despite the challenges, Covid-19 has brought some positive prospects for disaster management in Kenya. It has raised the political profile for embracing disaster-proof development because the Covid experience shows that disasters can erode developmental gains achieved over the years.

The need to better manage disasters has become important as it is clear that the impacts of emerging pandemics are created or exacerbated by existing ones. The attention given to Covid might imply the management of existing disasters could benefit from this renewed political goodwill.

It presents a great opportunity to move from costly emergency response to more integrated disaster-proof development planning and risk preparedness. It is a long term undertaking.

Dr Joanes Atela, senior research Fellow and head of the Climate Resilient Economies Programme at the African Centre for Technology Studies (ACTS)