CELEBRATION, Florida — Poverty and disease create a vicious cycle in which they simultaneously feed off one another. As poverty rises, disease benefits from a lack of sanitary practices, vaccination access and proper health care. In turn, disease exacerbates the struggle already faced by those in poverty. Poverty limits “access to proper nutrition and healthy foods” as well as “other elements that define an individual’s standard of living. Individuals who live in low-income or high-poverty neighborhoods are likely to experience poor health due to a combination of these factors.”
Nearly eight million people are experiencing extreme poverty in Kenya,16% of the population. This makes the need to combat disease in Kenya crucial. Many of the country’s slums have become breeding grounds for disease. This is due to a number of factors, like close living quarters, too many people in small houses, as well as lack of access to proper sanitation, clean water and health care.
Programs to Lower the Rates of Disease in Kenya
HIV/AIDS is the primary cause of death in Kenya. This sexually transmitted infection directly affects 1.5 million people in the Eastern African country. It spreads rampantly throughout those in poverty, who are at greater risk of turning to sex work and have less access to sexual health education.
Other diseases like tuberculosis and malaria are also issues. Programs like the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention attempt to mitigate these issues through projects like its global HIV, tuberculosis and immunization programs. Additionally, groups like the U.S. President’s Malaria Initiative, the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are doing their part. They’ve accomplished eliminating malaria as one of the top five killers in Kenya; however, the disease continues to pose a great threat to those living in poverty.
Elizabeth Goodwin, a former Peace Corps volunteer who now co-owns Service Learning in Kenya, stresses the danger of water-borne illnesses in infants as well as the high mortality rates due to diarrhea diseases. She highlights discrepancies in the access to resources like water, health care and education between cities and rural areas.
“While much improved from 25 years ago, there is still a lack of health care education in poverty-stricken Kenya,” Goodwin told The Borgen Project in an interview. “For instance, we need to be teaching mothers that when their babies have diarrhea, they need to hydrate them more instead of limiting their access to water.”
The Impact of COVID-19 in Kenya
Kenya had more than 254,000 confirmed cases of the coronavirus as of late November, leading to more than 5,300 deaths. Compared to HIV/AIDS and other infections spreading throughout Kenya, some observers may say COVID-19 is relatively maintained.
Kenya imposed heavy travel restrictions, among other measures, which suggest part of why the country has had a low infection rate compared to other countries like the United States. But, those numbers are hard to trust, Goodwin said, citing discrepancies in testing as well as doctors lacking proper means to determine causes of death.
Goodwin experienced many of Kenya’s travel restrictions firsthand while moving in and out of the country. She noted that the government quarantined each of Kenya’s 47 counties. Yet, it didn’t have the same ability to entirely shut down as more developed countries had. “[It] could not fully lockdown because people are living on the coined ‘less than a dollar a day,'” she said. “So if they fully locked down, those in poverty would have no money to eat and […] would starve.”
Personal Protective Equipement
Like many living in poverty worldwide during the COVID-19 pandemic, impoverished Kenyans have limited – if any – access to personal protective equipment and vaccinations. The lack of access to vaccines also is clear as less than 10% of the population is fully vaccinated, compared to the United States where more than 60% of the population is now fully vaccinated.
Goodwin has also personally observed limited access to face masks, shortages of oxygen tanks and an increasing number of people unable to pay their hospital bills. It’s clear to her that if COVID-19 were to hit Kenya hard, the country would be in dire need of increased humanitarian aid. In addition to COVID-19’s devastating health impacts, “the lockdowns have resulted in economic decline, disruptions in HIV/AIDS and malaria management, increases in gender-based violence and food insecurity,” Goodwin added.
COVID-19 has brought the connection between poverty and disease in Kenya to the forefront, highlighting how quickly disease can disrupt even economically stable areas. To fight poverty, countries must prioritize fighting disease and vice versa.
– Lily Vassalo