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How Kenya Escaped The COVID-19 Pandemic's Worst Effects — And What's To Come


Nearly one year into the pandemic, Kenya has escaped its worst effects. There are more than 50 million people in Kenya, and to date, fewer than 2,000 deaths have been reported. Life in the country is actually feeling a lot like normal. That's according to NPR's Eyder Peralta, who lives there in the capital city, Nairobi.

Hey, Eyder.


KELLY: So when we say - when you say life feels kind of normal, what does that feel like? What's day-to-day life like?

PERALTA: I kind of feel bad saying this. Life here is pretty good right now. Our kids are back to in-person learning. They're swimming. The older one is playing basketball. It's summer here, so it's warm and sunny. And the African tulip trees, which have these beautiful bright orange flowers - they're blooming about a month earlier than they should be. Musicians - they're back at restaurants and bars. Political rallies, which everyone here views as, like, their football - those are back. So it feels like the city is back to life.

And I hope I'm not jinxing this sort of wonderful moment by saying that. But it feels like everyone has sort of unanimously decided that this pandemic is over. And the thing is that this has been the case since the beginning of the year, and it doesn't seem to be affecting the trajectory of the pandemic here. The positivity rate has remained under 5% for more than a month, and that is the lowest that Kenya has seen since the pandemic started.

KELLY: And you said it's - life feels back to normal, meaning there was a point where you had restrictions in place. Did that contribute to why it has thus far - knock on wood - been so mild in Kenya, or do we know?

PERALTA: So we don't know. I mean, all we have is theories. Maybe it's that, you know, Kenya has a super young population. Maybe it's that people here have been exposed to other coronaviruses before. And last night, I called Nelly Yateesh (ph). She's an epidemiologist. And I asked her if the fact that the country seems to be back to normal, yet the infection rate is so low - I asked her if that gave her hope. And she brought me back down to reality. Here's what she said.

NELLY YATEESH: It worries me because the new variants that are being reported in the U.K., in South Africa, in Brazil - I think we already saw two cases in Kenya, and those ones are more easily spread. And, you know, with all these rallies, with schools open, life is back to normal. The only thing that is preventing it from being fully normal is the curfew. It is not enough.

PERALTA: So she's saying that the only guardrail that Kenya has right now to prevent another wave of this disease is a 10 p.m. curfew. And she says that is not enough to protect Kenya from more coronavirus.

KELLY: I have to ask - is it possible that the infection rate is higher than has been reported? And this has been a challenge in the U.S., where it's suspected that the actual number of cases is way higher than has been reported.

PERALTA: It is absolutely higher than what the testing is telling us. And serological studies that have been done looking for antibodies find that in some places in Nairobi, in some of the informal settlements, 60% of Kenyans have been infected with the coronavirus.

KELLY: What about vaccines? Are you all getting vaccines rolled out there?

PERALTA: Not a single dose has been handed out in Kenya. The plan from the government is that in the next 18 months, only 30% of the population will have been vaccinated, and that's if everything goes as planned. So that is not enough for herd immunity.

KELLY: All right. Eyder Peralta, I will release you back to your beautiful tulip trees and your...


KELLY: ...Mostly normal life. Thanks so much for catching us up on what it feels like there in Kenya.

PERALTA: Thank you, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.