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How the politicians have spread Covid-19 in Kenya

By Bernadine Mutanu| August 11, 2021

Images of people gasping for breath, overwhelmed hospitals and increased cases of Covid-19, such is the situation in the Lake Region of Kenya.

The situation is dire such that in Homabay County, all the 32 High Dependency Unit (HDU) beds are full, with patients requiring oxygen increasing by the day.

In the past one week, the Covid-19 cases in the Lake Region counties of Busia, Vihiga, Kisii, Nyamira, Kakamega, Bungoma, Kericho, Bomet, Trans-Nzoia, Kisumu, Siaya, Homa Bay and Migori have increased to unprecedented levels, with Kisumu recording a positivity rate of as high as 28 percent.

According to experts, it is the beginning of an explosion of Covid-19 pandemic as the fourth wave takes off in Kenya.

“The tracking charts show a sustained ascendency and it will most likely only get worse as the delta variant spreads beyond the Lake Region and Western Kenya. We must brace ourselves for a surge to peak in July,” said Dr Ahmed Kalebi, is a consultant pathologist and the President of the International Academy of pathology in East Africa. 

The region has become the new hotspot for Covid-19 although Nairobi still leads in the number of cumulative cases. While it is clear that the increased Covid-19 cases are being driven by the Indian (delta) variant identified in Kibos at the beginning of May, 2021, Kisumu’s role as host to the celebrations is expected to drive up Covid-19 cases in the coming days.

But how did this happen?

In a recent interview, Dr Bernard Muia, the Murang’a County Board chairman for Health and Sanitation said, “By June 20, we expect an increase in Covid-19 cases because of the recent rallies in Kisumu.”

He said besides other reasons, experts believe that political events are also to blame for high peaks of Covid-19 in the country.

The political events when looked against the Covid-19 curve show a surge of cases during heightened political activity.

Dr Ahmed Kalebi sees the impact of leaders on the disease:
“Politicians have a role to play in spreading the virus through their action of commission or omission, including holding rallies and gatherings that act as super spreader events where people crowd without masks even when the politicians’ aides wear masks,” he said.

“Often you will find politicians in such gatherings asking people in the crowd to wear masks or distance socially particularly during roadside rallies and gatherings unlike organized events such as Statehouse, hotels or halls where better control can be achieved,” said Dr Kalebi.

Dr Ahmed Khalebi speaking at a past during a past event. (Credits:Lancet Kenya)
Dr Ahmed Khalebi speaking at a past during a past event. (Credits:Lancet Kenya)


According to him, failure by politicians to send a strong message and remind their supporters and the general public, or to lead by example in advocating for infection prevention and control measures contribute to the spread of the virus.

Some leaders have also been heard telling outright lies, misleading Kenyans to the point of Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe calling them out.

For example, Dagoretti South Member of Parliament John Kiarie was questioned in March 2020 for claiming that the government was sugar-coating the real situation on the ground, claiming there had been more than 7,000 people in mandatory quarantine.

“It is disheartening for those in leadership to continue perpetuating false information that has nothing to do with real cases just to gain political mileage,” Mr Kagwe said on March 30, 2020.


Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe speaking at past press briefing.
Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe speaking at past press briefing.


Although former Nairobi Governor Gideon Mbuvi meant well distributing food and sanitizers to vulnerable populations in the city, his inclusion of alcohol in food packs claiming that “alcohol killed coronavirus” was misleading, according to the WHO my buster.

And, the dispersal of some political rallies by the police and sparing of others led to some people like Ms Jacinta Nduku think that Covid-19 is a weapon being used against a faction of the political class.

The Nairobi resident says such inequalities have made some Kenyans to think that “there is no Covid-19” and that the pandemic is just but a ploy by politicians and government officials to “tame others politically or to benefit themselves through “shady deals” including access to donor funding.

As such, people have lowered their guard including adhering to public health measures (masking and social distancing), arguing that the Ministry of Health daily figures were fake, leading to the spread of Covid-19.

“At a football match in Kibra played at Impala grounds, less than one percent of the people in crowd were wearing masks,” said Dr Kalebi, who had attended the match.

He said, “Right now there is complacency and non-adherence in Nairobi. That is why the third wave is lingering.”

paper by A.s Bhalla published by Observer Research Foundation shows relationship between leadership and the control of the Covid-19 pandemic.

And a survey conducted towards the end of 2020, in Brazil and the United States America suggest that people “may ignore science-based information and best practices if their leaders downplay the coronavirus crisis,” states an article on Nation.Africa states.

Nation did an open source investigation and was able to establish that there is a connection between political activities and the Covid-19 pandemic in the country.

It established that the progression of the pandemic has shaped political discourse and vice versa and in turn affecting how Kenyans are responding to containment measures, and the consequent spread of the virus.

The Covid-19 curve in Kenya has been shaped by three peaks: the first on July 26, 2020 when some 960 new cases were recorded, the second on November 27, 2020 when 1,554 new cases were recorded and the third on March 26, 2021 when 2008 cases were recorded.

Despite a ban on any form of political gatherings still in place, it has neither hindered public gatherings nor has it prevented high profile deaths and burials been attracting crowds during burials and the subsequent by-elections.

For example, Kisii County had only two Covid-19 cases as of June 16, 2020, increasing with only another two cases by July 8, 2020.

On the day Covid-19 peaked during the second wave on July 27, Kisii recorded 25 cases (the highest from March 2020) according to the MoH Covid-19 situation reports. Between March 13, 2020 and September 21, 2020, the county recorded 255 cases of Covid-19.

Having played host to the 2020 Mashujaa day celebrations, and the Building Bridges popularization campaign, the county witnessed a huge rise in the number of infections days before and after the celebrations.

Consequently, in just two months, the county recorded 436 cases of Covid-19 according to the MoH data.

Between October 21 and November 20, 2020, Nation established that in 24 days where data was available 209 cases of Covid-19 were reported. And between September 21, 2020 and October 20, 2020, there were 227 reported cases in the 28 days where data was available.

By June 10, 2021, Kisii had 1714 cumulative cases, out of which 1712 cases are local transmissions according to the County’s Covid-19 situation report, and the cases are increasing.

But, political gatherings have remained banned from March 13, 2020 when the first case of Covid-19 was announced, the government only allowing limited capacity in church services to tame the spread of Covid-19.

Despite the ban, political gatherings are still common and burials of prominent people have been attracting huge crowds, the latest being the burial of former Kibwezi Member of Parliament Kalembe Ndile.

In such political events, people do not maintain social distance and not all wear masks.

To contain the spread of Covid-19, the government directed burials to be conducted within 72 hours and to be attended by family only. At first, only a maximum of 15 people had been allowed but this was revised to 100 people.

But the directive has not prevented the hundreds of people from attending, further increasing the possibility of a fast spread of Covid-19.

Nation.Africa counted 17 high profile deaths, which occurred during the first and second peaks of Covid-19. After the deaths came funerals and burials which were attended by thousands of people -led by political leaders.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), “evidence suggests that Covid-19 can be detected in people one to three days before their symptom onset, with the highest viral loads observed around the day of symptom onset, followed by a gradual decline over time.”

According to the organization, incubation of the virus, which is the time between exposure to it and symptom onset, is on average five to six days, but can be as long as 14 days.”

That is why it may take some time before cases can be seen to be going up after events such as rallies and funerals.

research published in the journal PLOS ONE states that one person who has contracted the virus that causes Covid-19 is able to transmit it to 2.87 people on average. These are able to reproduce the virus at the same rate.

But the reproductive number varies on country, culture, calculation, stage of the outbreak and could be higher in some places and lower in others.

After the deaths came intense campaigns for by-elections in different parts of the country in spite of the pandemic.

According to the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission information, by-elections were conducted in Dabaso Ward (Kilifi) Kahawa Wendani Ward (Kiambu), Kisumu North Ward (Kisumu) Wundanyi Mbale Ward (Taita Taveta), Lake View Ward (Nakuru) and Msambweni Constituency (Kilifi). They had been postponed because of restrictions by the government to curb the spread of Covid-19, but were conducted on December 15, 2020.

On March 4, 2021 other by-elections were conducted in Hell’s Gate Ward (Nakuru), London Ward (Nakuru), Kiamokama Ward (Kisii), Kitise/Kithuku Ward (Makueni), Huruma Ward (Uasin Gishu) as well as in Matungu (Kakamega) and Kabuchai (Bungoma) Constituencies.

Machakos County senatorial election was held on March 18 2021, while Juja and Bonchari Constituencies and Rurii Ward by-elections were held on May 18.

Other by-elections are coming up on July 15, 2021 in Kiambaa Constituency, and Muguga Ward, at a time when another peak of Covid-19 is expected in Kenya.

This is an edited version of a story by Bernadine Mutanu which originally appeared here.