Parenting in a Global Pandemic: A View From Kenya

Navigating survival needs while trying to protect your family from COVID-19.

Posted May 14, 2020

This is the second of a series of three pieces on parenting around the world during the COVID-19 pandemic. The first piece focused on Tanzania.  

A brief reprise of our introduction

The COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting measures taken by governments worldwide present unprecedented challenges for parents. Measures include school shutdowns, shelter in place, and lockdown orders. In many places, travel and outdoor exercise are restricted. Shopping and recreation are limited. Parents with children at home face a range of challenges.

Parenting challenges vary with the age of the child: 

  • Infants and toddlers need constant supervision and — while they can’t understand what is happening — will react to the stress of their parents. 
  • School-aged children are being told to continue their work, but are not given the instructional support required to complete it. Stress has grown but supports have shrunk.
  • Adolescents face unique challenges. Although able to supervise themselves, the complexity of school work may be particularly tough. Normatively, adolescents shift the source of their support from parents to peers. Adolescents making normative transitions — beginning romantic relationships, graduating, entering the workforce — may be doing so under entirely novel conditions, facing strong competition, and with limited guidance.

In sum, children’s needs are exceptionally high, parents’ lives are exceptionally stressful, and the ability of families to nurture each other is sharply diminished.

Realities of families in informal urban settlements: Navigating survival needs versus adherent to COVID-19 prevention measures in Kenya

Dr. Joyce Wamoyi is a Senior Social and Behavioural Research Scientist at the National Institute for Medical Research in Mwanza, Tanzania.  Her work focuses on adolescent sexual and reproductive health and parenting and child outcomes.

The first COVID-19 case was reported in Kenya on 13th March 2020 and as of 10th May 2020, the country had 672 confirmed cases, 239 recovered cases, and 32 fatalities from COVID-19. Despite the great efforts of the Kenyan government to curb the spread of the virus in Kenya, many families have been affected by some of the measures adopted. This is particularly the case for families living in the informal urban settlements where the realities of life may be challenging for the adoption of the recommended measures. Examples of the adopted measures are partial lockdown, social distancing, social isolation, and quarantine.  

Given that majority of people in Kenyan cities are involved in the informal sector and casual labour, many lack resources and the means to isolate themselves from others, and are unable sacrifice income-generating opportunities for their families until the pandemic passes. The daily survival of many such families makes it difficult to adopt physical/social distancing and social isolation. In search of income for the day-to-day livelihood of families, most individuals in poor urban settings seem to be prioritizing day-to-day survival over the fear of the prospect of contracting COVID-19.

While widely practiced and hailed as having epidemiological benefits, in high-income countries, these measures may not be viable options in many low-income settings without social protection mechanisms, such as those informal urban settlements of Kenya. Families share limited accommodation space with a family of more than five people sometimes sharing a single room. Clearly, these make it challenging to self-isolate or to keep a physical distance.

Moreover, most of the families in informal urban settlements live from hand to mouth. Depending on daily earnings to feed one’s family has meant that families go without good nourishment as parents are forced in social isolation to prevent the spread of COVID-19. This will have consequences on children and parental control of their children. With schools and colleges closed indefinitely, this has meant that children spend prolonged periods of time back home with their families in overcrowded and poor accommodation. Children may also not have access to adequate nutrition as the parents are unable to go out to work for daily wage and survival.

Measures such as physical distancing and social isolation are likely to impact families, parenting, and child outcomes in the long run and must be rethought. Physical distancing is impractical in crowded informal urban settings where daily lives and means of survival involve interactions at water sources, bathrooms, markets, and public transport.

Moreover, as parents struggle to provide for their families’ basic needs, this would push adolescent girls and young women already in precarious conditions into further risk for sexual and reproductive health problems. As evidenced in HIV literature, such adolescent girls and young women from vulnerable backgrounds are at increased risk for HIV risk due to engaging in transactional sex — sometimes to fulfill basic needs.

It is apparent that parents in informal and poor urban settlements need financial and material support to be able to meet their parental roles effectively. Adolescent girls and young women in those families may also need special support during this period when many may be tempted to further engage in risky sexual behavior including transactional sex for various reasons. Measures such as providing cash transfers to very poor girls and their families should be encouraged and ongoing government efforts to relieve pressure on formal and informal sectors applauded. This would help families pass through the COVID-19 times with fewer consequences on their children.


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Wamoyi, J., et al., Transactional sex and risk for HIV infection in sub-Saharan Africa: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Internation AIDS Society, 2016. 19(1): p. 20992.