Lessons from Combating COVID-19 Critical for Sustainable Development in Kenya

By Benard O Nyatuka | Jul 3, 2020

Understandably, climate change, is as dramatic as the COVID-19 disease. In fact, expert opinion has it that if unchecked, climate change stands to claim even a higher number of lives compared to the coronavirus. The main contrast between the two is that climate change is taking place at a slower pace compared to the pandemic.

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In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, various global, continental, federal and local agencies have all put their best foot forward to contain it as well as cushion key sectors against its unprecedented impact. Among others, dollars in the range of trillions have been set aside in just a couple of days or weeks globally to take care of the grave situation brought about by the disease. Similar amounts have also been approved, within this short period, to make the economy stable.

Research institutions, including the higher education sector, have not been left behind, either. Albeit formidable challenges in a bid to embrace it, online teaching, for instance, has particularly come in handy in engaging students while in quarantine. Within the same period, public health schools, even where they did not exist, especially in universities in both the East and West have been swiftly established to help in the management of the pandemic. Indeed, top-notch innovations have been witnessed, including robots to facilitate the provision of care services to the COVID-19 disease patients, as was the case with the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. This is in addition to making a sterilizer that destroys up to 99.99 percent of different viruses that are potentially infectious.

In Kenya, the invention of ventilator prototypes by the students and faculty of both, the Kenyatta University and Dedan Kimathi University of Technology is quite heartening. And, although in limited degrees, various local universities are involved in the core goals of teaching, research and service to the community during this hard time. It is also important to note that in quite a short spell, quarantine centres have been established all over the country while some short- term measures have been put in place to reduce the negative impact of the pandemic on the economy. The curfew that is already in place as well as restricted movement involving some counties that are considered to be the worst-hit so far, are other measures that have been taken within this short period since the first patient of the disease was confirmed on March 13, 2020, in the country. As of May 30, 2020, a total of 1,888 persons had tested positive for the coronavirus while 464 had recovered and 63 succumbed to the disease.

On its part, the Ministry of Agriculture has launched a countrywide campaign to establish kitchen gardens in both rural and urban dwellings, as a response to the ravaging COVID-19 disease. This is in a bid to enhance food supply, healthy diet and desirable lifestyle change. The move is particularly informed by the fact that people who are healthy with good immune systems are less vulnerable to infectious diseases and chronic ailments. Indeed, it needs to be appreciated that eating fresh and unprocessed food daily is important in getting the vitamins, proteins, dietary fibre, antioxidants as well as minerals required by the body to function normally.

Protecting the Planet

It is important, however, to note that the various successes and blunders that have been made by individual countries notwithstanding, the zeal with which the world has responded to the coronavirus disease, is largely commendable. But one wonders why, despite the well-documented 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, such unity of purpose and urgency is not always demonstrated by all members of the United Nations community to attain the targets set for the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Even though this Agenda is an action plan for the entire world population, planet Earth and prosperity. Among others, it is meant to set human beings free from not only the tyranny of poverty and want but also to conserve and protect the planet.

Understandably, climate change, is as dramatic as the COVID-19 disease. In fact, expert opinion has it that if unchecked, climate change stands to claim even a higher number of lives compared to the coronavirus. The main contrast between the two is that climate change is taking place at a slower pace compared to the pandemic that claims thousands of lives in a matter of hours. Unfortunately, this has made governments to take their sweet time in taking the necessary measures to mitigate climate change, thereby, courting a disaster of unimaginable magnitude.

It is disheartening to note that a number of the commitments previously made jointly by various nations to control, say, environmental degradation, have been blatantly reneged on account of egocentric considerations, including profit margins, especially by the developed world and their business empires. The motivation to make profits by businesses at the expense of environmental conservation should be urgently and viciously fought against. It is also instructive to note that although a number of corporate entities identify environmental conservation as part of their social responsibilities, there is little investment and commitment to the same. This leads to a failure to produce the desirable impact. In some cases, such a crucial social responsibility is reduced to a mere photo session meant to hoodwink the public.

On a positive note, Kenya is reported to be doing well in the African continent in terms of tapping green energy sources, such as hydro, geothermal, wind and solar power. This is a great boost towards the realization of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), Kenya Vision 2030 development blueprint and the Big Four Agenda which focuses on enhancing manufacturing, food security, universal healthcare and affordable housing in the country. Similarly, Kenya has received accolades for her ban on single-use plastics and innovative solutions that range from renewable energy and life-cycle approaches to business transactions. Particularly, this came out strongly during the Fourth Session of the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA 4) conference held in Nairobi early last year.

Also, during the UNEA 4 meeting, passionate calls were made to the international community to step up commitments to sustainable natural resource use and management as well as innovative business ventures. Among others, assembling reliable data as well as employing relevant technology were identified as being core in the efforts to enhance environmental conservation. It is worth noting that held on the sidelines of the Assembly was the Third Edition of the One Planet Summit whose key objective is to strengthen partnerships regarding climate adaptation, protection of biodiversity as well as energy reform in Africa.

Protest and demonstrations

However, frustrations among individuals who were disenchanted with the lacklustre and even contradictory approach to environmental conservation measures were also evident. The conference, for instance, witnessed protests being staged by various lobby groups under the umbrella of the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance (PACJA) which is a continental coalition of non-governmental organizations. Speaking at a powerful pre-summit session graced by a global audience, the protestors criticized the Kenyan government on what they claimed to be doublespeak with respect to climate change mitigation. The protest was particularly prompted by the national government’s proposed coal mining project then, in the Mui basin in Kitui County. As a fossil, coal contributes to the depletion of the ozone layer thereby, paving the way to increased atmospheric temperatures that are behind global warming.

But, as stipulated in the country’s development blueprint, the Kenya Vision 2030 aspires to provide a clean, secure and sustainable environment. The plan appreciates the fact that it is the natural environment that holds its social, economic and political pillars together. This includes the supply of both renewable as well as non-renewable goods and services. Thus, the achievement of the country’s development dreams to a large extent hangs on balancing the natural systems that support energy supplies, agriculture, tourism, livelihood strategies, among others.

Among others, the lobbyists regretted that mining coal would contravene the spirit of the SDGs, the Paris Declaration, the African Union Agenda on Energy and several multilateral environmental agreements to which Kenya has committed herself. It is worth noting that the last day of the UNEA 4 conference also coincided with worldwide protests to demand action from global leaders on global warming. The protests, mainly involving young people in their teens and early 20s were meant to mark a global day whose goal is to drive leaders into action on climate change.

Interestingly, the worldwide demonstrations were first initiated by a Swedish teen activist, Greta Thunberg, who stayed put outside parliament in Stockholm in 2018 to compel world leaders to lead action on global warming. Majestically, huge numbers of students have marched through varied cities in the last two years, strongly urging both governments and world leaders to act decisively on climate change. This is a clear indication that the young people are frustrated by the inability among many national as well as international leaders to not only formulate but implement enforceable agreements meant to minimize environmental degradation.

Climate change consequences

It is instructive to observe that climate change has continued to cause havoc of unprecedented magnitudes. The locust swarms being witnessed today, especially in South-West Asia, the Arabian Peninsula and the East African region have been associated with climate change and so is cyclone Idai that led to the deadly flash floods that were recently witnessed in Southern Africa, particularly in Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Malawi and several neighbouring countries. The release of greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxides and destruction of forests have been blamed for global warming. Acidification in water bodies, drift in climatic zones and variation in both the planet’s ecosystem as well as rainfall patterns have all been linked to global warming. Among others, it has been reported that climate change facilitates the spread of some diseases, violent hurricanes, destructive sand and windstorms. Such episodes are usually accompanied by the tragic loss of lives, flora and fauna as well as property. Other undesirable consequences of climate change include food insecurity, water scarcity, wood-fuel crisis, soil erosion, conflict and insecurity.

In Kenya, the ravaging floods that have been experienced in the last couple of weeks have caused dozens of death, landslides and rendered tens of thousands of people homeless. In addition, the frequent drought episodes and resultant hunger as well as the disappearance of some water bodies, including glaciers in Mount Kenya, are notable examples of the consequences of climate change. Given this background, making urgent concerted efforts, just like those that the country has initiated to combat the COVID-19 monster, need to be rolled out to curb the devastating consequences of climate change.

Global action for environmental conservation

Like the COVID-19 scourge, environmental challenges transcend national boundaries. It is imperative, therefore, that governments, as well as international policymakers, devise appropriate strategies to address them. This includes enacting laws that bind the international community to ensure sound environmental conservation as well as exploitation, as opposed to mere agreements or declarations that are not supported by law. It is worth reiterating that hurdles to environmental conservation are sometimes compounded by lack of relevant laws to guide the same. As it was observed by participants during the UNEA 4 conference, enacting environmental laws that are timely is paramount so as to save Planet Earth. It is important to emphasize that once binding laws and rules that are internationally applicable are in place, we can then be in a position to meaningfully protect human and environmental health, global ecosystems and realize the SDGs, most of which revolve around the blue economy, energy, sanitation, climate change as well as terrestrial ecosystems.

The bottom line is that let all the individuals, institutions, countries and relevant partners in environmental conservation act responsibly, bearing in mind that the consequences of environmental degradation are dire to the entire world, similar to those of the coronavirus disease. It is only when all stakeholders, act in a collaborative manner that we can meaningfully protect human and environmental health, global ecosystems and realize the SDGs. Equally important to note is that generally, both the COVID-19 pandemic and environmental protection require colossal amounts of resources to be mobilized towards the same. This calls for not only individual initiative, but also such actors as corporate bodies, philanthropists, governments and development partners to step up partnerships on these two global issues that threaten the existence of humanity. Going forward, let us all embrace the watchwords of innovation, collaboration, diligence, courage as well as hope with respect to both environmental and the COVID-19 disease management.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author/​s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Azim Premji University or Foundation.


Benard O Nyatuka, Senior Lecturer, Department of Educational Foundations, Kisii University, Kenya