By Benjamin Sulle – Programs Officer, KYPA
As the global shocks of Covid-19 become apparent for nations, the most vulnerable sections of populations are succumbing to the virus. The implications of the virus have seen the closure of non-essential businesses, lockdowns, curfews, declarations of a state of emergency, among other calls for behaviour change in order to curb the spread of the virus. In the global west, the aged populations have borne the brunt of the novel Corona Virus, with thousands dying weekly. In fact, as the virus spread throughout Europe, there was an initial belief that the youth were immune. When young people, including infants caught the virus, experts and non-experts alike thought that perhaps the virus was spreading only in the temperate climate of the global west and that Africans within the tropics would be spared. However, the lack of clear responses by Governments to the pandemic exposed the soft underbelly of public health systems in Africa and soon cases appeared throughout the continent with relative ubiquity. Governments called for the closure of their borders and cessation of movement amongst other measures to curb the spread. These measures, although meant to ensure public health and safety, have resulted in job closures, loss of income, and disruption of livelihoods for many, who were already struggling to make ends meet.
In Kenya, this disruption has mostly affected the youth, whose work in the informal sector runs the economy. The demographic that was already struggling with the lack of employment opportunities is now compelled to stay at home with no alternative for income-generation. The agriculture and the service industries in Kenya, which employ the greatest number of young people, either directly or indirectly through their supply chains, are the most affected by the pandemic. Although the youth may not be the farmers in the fields due to other factors, such as land tenure systems, climate change, and the perception that farming is for those who have not been successful elsewhere, they are still the biggest players within the supply chain. Whereas farming and supply of food continue, given that they are regarded as one of the essential services, the various sectors within the supply chain that the youth play a part in are affected by the pandemic.
According to research by the Africa Development Bank, the service sector is the second highest employer of youth. And it is perhaps the hardest hit. From transport, which has since been limited to cargo, food, cleaning, and solid waste management, which employs urban youth in the informal sector, the losses and livelihood disruptions have been massive. The closure of hotels and bars means that young people who worked in the sector have to find alternative sources of income. Many employers in this sector have had to send their employees on unpaid leave or altogether terminate their contracts until such a time that normalcy shall resume.
One sector that is thought to be the elixir of youth unemployment is ICT. The President even moved the youth from the Ministry of Public Service and Gender Affairs to the Ministry of ICT and Innovation. The specific sectors within ICT that employ youth are Business Process Outsourcing; development of mobile applications and related software; and blogging and internet design. However, under Covid-19, the ICT sector has gotten mixed fortunes. On the one hand, opportunities have been created since most services have now moved online to mitigate the risk of spreading the virus such as education, banking services, as well as trade. On the other hand, demand for digital content, software solutions, and freelancing has been on the decline. Consumers have shifted focus to more essential goods and services such as food and reliable news. There have been calls by the government for diversification of skills as well as upskilling during this time for young people in the sector. The Cabinet Secretary for ICT, Innovation and Youth Affairs has even appointed a COVID-19 ICT Advisory Committee whose terms of reference include developing and implementing a framework for identifying, supporting and scaling local ICT solutions that can support the country in its efforts to combat the Covid-19 pandemic effects to establishing an enabling environment that will stimulate economic development through ICTs. Curiously, only one person in the advisory committee is a youth, in a sector that undeniably has many young people with exemplary expertise and knowledge.
The President also set up a raft of tax measures to cushion the youth from the effects of the pandemic. Notably was the 100% pay-as-you-earn tax relief for employees earning less than Ksh. 28,000 per month. While this is welcome, questions have been raised over the 100% tax relief as it targets only those in formal employment, leaving out majority of the youth who work in the informal sector. The Central Bank of Kenya also ordered the delisting of Kenyans, who have defaulted their loans with less than Sh1,000 from Credit Reference Bureau (CRB). This might provide many previously listed young Kenyans with the opportunity to borrow from moneylenders during this time when sources of income are limited.
Young Parliamentarians may also introduce pandemic-specific legislation to help cushion young Kenyans from Covid-19. At the moment, there is only one Bill by the Senate Ad-hoc Committee on Covid-19 which seeks to among other things, provide for the establishment of a Pandemic Fund whenever a declaration of a pandemic is made. The Fund would serve as a mechanism for ensuring that there are adequate resources geared towards containing the spread and mitigating against the impact of a pandemic. The Bill also introduces socio-economic protective measures such as tax incentives, revision of contractual obligations during a pandemic, as well as labour relations to ensure the protection of the employee. Although criticised as highly ambitious, this Bill, which seeks to respond to not only the Covid-19 pandemic but also other pandemics in the future, is a good start to the possible ways in which young parliamentarians may intervene so as to help young people.
Further, youth participation in the political and governance process has been consistently low, which increases feelings of disgruntlement. The youth should be given means to air their views on the Bill and provide real and meaningful solutions to the problems that they face. Exclusion of the youth voice in the creation of laws and policies to contain the spread and effects of the coronavirus will only lead to disproportionate measures that will ultimately disadvantage the youth.