Kenya’s GDP Contracts Under Weight of COVID-19, Impacting Lives and Livelihoods

The latest World Bank economic analysis for Kenya projects the economy to contract by between 1.0 percent and 1.5 percent in 2020, as ongoing COVID-19 containment measures and behavioral responses restrict activity in Kenya and its trading partners.

The Kenya Economic Update, Navigating the Pandemic, notes the downturn in economic growth reflects the more severe economic impact of the pandemic to date than had been initially anticipated, including a large impact on the national accounts of the closure of education institutions since March. In response, the government has deployed both fiscal and monetary policies to support the healthcare system, protect the most vulnerable households, and support firms to help preserve jobs, incomes and the economy’s productive potential. With a sharp decline in tax revenues due to the weakening in economic activity, and tax relief, and an increase in COVID-related spending needs, the fiscal deficit has widened, and debt vulnerabilities have risen. The fiscal deficit widened to 8.2 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), up from the pre-COVID budgeted target of 6.0 percent of GDP, and Kenya’s debt to GDP ratio has risen to 65.6 percent of GDP as of June 2020, up from 62.4 percent of GDP in June 2019.

“As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to threaten both the lives and livelihoods of Kenyans, we remain committed to supporting the government to allocate sufficient resources to the health sector to combat the pandemic, continue with mass testing, support self-quarantine, social distancing, and protect the most vulnerable groups,” said Keith Hansen, World Bank Country Director for Kenya. “It is equally critical to provide well-targeted support to the most vulnerable affected households.”

Beyond strengthening health systems and protecting incomes, the report recommends several near-term actions that can play a role to combat recession and revive the economy’s productivity, creating the conditions for a resilient and inclusive recovery. Ensuring continued access to safe healthcare, including for non-COVID-19 related health concerns, remains a priority. Given fiscal constraints, this will require redirecting expenditures to the highest priority areas, whilst maintaining a focus on raising the efficiency of spending and ensuring the transparent use of funds.

Following the job and income losses precipitated by the crisis, the report notes support is needed for the “new poor” whose livelihoods have been affected. This could be achieved through a horizontal scale-up of social protection programs, appropriately targeted, timely, and temporary while the crisis persists. It is critical to ensure continued support to vulnerable households, while safeguarding human capital through expanded access to digital technology, combined with better access to information to mitigate usage of negative coping strategies (i.e. asset liquidation) and combat food insecurity while offsetting the increase in poverty.

“Following the extraordinary economic support efforts necessitated by the crisis, Kenya’s economic recovery can be supported by the authorities returning to an appropriately-timed and balanced fiscal consolidation path, to reduce mounting debt vulnerabilities and safeguard macroeconomic stability,” said Alex Sienaert, World Bank Senior Economist and lead author of the report. “Kenya will also need to enhance its existing institutional setup for monitoring and responding to future communicable disease outbreaks, and further the still-critical “Big 4” agenda for medium-term inclusive growth, including realizing the government’s vision of sustainably providing universal healthcare.”

Kenya’s economic outlook remains highly uncertain, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to unfold in the country, and globally. Under baseline assumptions, the economy is projected to rebound quickly in 2021, lifting real GDP by 6.9 percent y/y. A major factor in this strong rebound is the unusual impact on the national account’s treatment of education sector output normalizing, which is projected to add 2.2 percentage points to real GDP growth next year. Delayed availability of vaccines, and prolonged social distancing and other needed COVID-19 countermeasures, could undermine the projected recovery in economic activity.

The report’s policy section focuses on options to strengthen healthcare system and testing capacity, to support firms, and to protect the most vulnerable households to cope with the COVID-19 global pandemic.

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