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COVID-19: Echoes of the 20th Century in a 21st Century Pandemic

In modern history, the most notable major pandemic was the Spanish Flu of 1918-1919. Over a century later, the world is grappling with the effects of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic that has currently infected over 2 million people and killed over 140,000.

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Diseases have plagued mankind throughout history. The Neolithic Revolution, which was marked by a shift to agrarian societies, preceded by hunting and gathering communities, brought about increased trading activities. The shift created new opportunities for increased human and animal interactions, which in turn, introduced and sped up the spread of new diseases. The more civilized humans became, the more the occurrences of pandemics was witnessed.

This led to outbreaks that left an indelible mark in history due to their severity.  Three of the deadliest pandemics include the Plague of Justinian (541-542 BC) that killed about 30-50 million people, Black Death (1347-1351) that killed 200 million and Smallpox (1520 onwards) that killed 56 million.

Infographic courtesy: Visual Capitalist

In modern history, the most notable major pandemic was the Spanish Flu of 1918-1919. Over a century later, the world is grappling with the effects of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic that has currently infected over 2 million people and killed over 140,000.

But how does the Spanish flu compare to the current COVID-19 pandemic?

The mother of all flu pandemics in modern history

The Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 is sometimes referred to as the mother of all pandemics. It affected one-third of the world’s population and killed up to 50 million people, including some 675,000 Americans. It was the first known pandemic to involve the H1N1 virus.

The outbreak occurred during the final months of World War I. It came in several waves but its origin, however, is still a matter of debate to-date. Its name doesn’t necessarily mean it came from Spain.

An emergency hospital during Spanish flu influenza pandemic, Camp Funston, Kansas, c. 1918 Image Courtesy: National Museum of Health and Medicine

Spain was one of the earliest countries where the epidemic was identified. Historians believe this was likely a result of wartime media censorship. The country was a neutral nation during the war and did not enforce strict censorship on its press. This freedom of the press allowed them to freely publish early accounts of the illness. As a result, people falsely believed the illness was specific to Spain and hence earning the name “Spanish flu”.

Symptoms

Influenza or flu is a virus that attacks the respiratory system and is highly contagious.

Initial symptoms of the Spanish flu included a sore head and tiredness, followed by a dry hacking cough, loss of appetite, stomach problems and excessive sweating. As it progressed, the illness could affect the respiratory organs, and pneumonia could develop. This stage was often the main cause of death. This also explains why it is difficult to determine exact numbers killed by the flu, as the listed cause of death was often something other than the flu.

These symptoms are very similar to those of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Origin

For decades, the Spanish flu virus was lost to history and scientists still do not know for sure where the virus originated. Several theories as to what may have caused it point to France, the United States or China.

Research published in 1999 by a British team, led by virologist John Oxford theorized a major United Kingdom staging and hospital camp in Étaples, France as being the centre of the flu. In late 1917, military pathologists reported the onset of a new disease with high mortality in the overcrowded camp that they later recognized as the flu. The camp was also home to a piggery, and poultry was regularly brought for food from neighbouring villages. Oxford and his team theorized that a significant precursor virus harboured in birds, mutated and then migrated to the pigs.

Other statements have been that the flu originated from the United States, in Kansas. In 2018, another study found evidence against the flu originating from Kansas, as the cases and deaths there were fewer than those in New York City in the same period. The study did, however, find evidence suggesting that the virus may have been of North American Origin, though it wasn’t conclusive.

Multiple studies have placed the origin of the flu in China. The country had lower rates of flu mortality, which may have been due to an already acquired immunity possessed by the population.  The argument was that the virus was imported to Europe via infected Chinese and Southeast Asian soldiers and workers headed across the Atlantic.

However, the Chinese Medical Association Journal published a report in 2016 with evidence that the 1918 virus had been circulating in the European armies for months and possibly years before the Spanish flu pandemic.

COVID-19, on the other hand, was first discovered in the Wuhan province of China late last year. There has been no argument against this so far. Research is still ongoing as to whether it was passed on from bats or the newly found connection to pangolins.

Spread

Much like COVID-19, the Spanish flu was spread from through air droplets, when an infected person sneezed or coughed, releasing more than half a million-virus particles that came into contact with uninfected people.

The close quarters and massive troop movements during the war hastened the spread of the flu. There are speculations that the soldiers’ already weakened immune systems were increasingly made vulnerable due to malnourishment and the stresses of combat and chemical attacks. More U.S soldiers in WW1 died from the flu than from the war.

A unique characteristic of the virus was the high death rate it caused among healthy adults 15-34 years of age. It lowered the average life expectancy in the U.S by more than 12 years.

COVID-19, on the other hand, does not discriminate in terms of age, but older people and those with other underlying medical conditions are being considered more vulnerable.

Measures

The measures being taken today to curb the spread of COVID-19 are very similar to those taken in 1918. Back then, physicians advised people to avoid crowded places and shaking hands with other people. Others suggested remedies included eating cinnamon, drinking wine and drinking Oxo’s beef broth. They also told people to keep their mouths and noses covered with masks in public.

Image courtesy: National Museum of Health and Medicine

In other areas quarantines were imposed and public places such as schools, theatres and churches were closed. Libraries stopped lending books and strict sanitary measures were passed to make spitting in the streets illegal.

Due to World War I, there was a shortage of doctors in some areas. Many of the physicians who were left became ill themselves. Schools and other buildings were turned into makeshift hospitals, where medical students had to step up to help the overwhelmed physicians.

Effects

Though the severity of COVID-19 has not gotten to the level of the Spanish flu, most of the effects the world is experiencing now are very relatable.

The Spanish flu killed with reckless abandon, leaving bodies piled up to such an extent that funeral parlours and cemeteries were overwhelmed. Family members were left to dig graves for their deceased loved ones. Strained state and local health centres also closed, hampering efforts to chronicle the spread of the flu and provide much-needed information to the public. Similar scenes are being witnessed in Italy today, which has so far recorded the highest number of deaths due to COVID-19.

The Spanish flu also adversely affected the economy as the deaths created a shortage of farmworkers, which in turn affected the summer harvest. A lack of staff and resources put other basic services such as waste collection and mail delivery under pressure. COVID-19 has seen some companies send their employees home on unpaid leave and others have imposed pay cuts. If the situation worsens, a majority is likely to lose their jobs.

Fake news during this time was also a problem. Even as people were dying, there were attempts to make money by advertising fake cures to desperate victims. On June 28, 1918, a public notice appeared in the British papers advising people of the symptoms of the flu. It however turned out this was actually an advertisement for Formamints, a tablet made and sold by a vitamin company. The advert stated that the mints were the “best means of preventing the infective processes” and that everyone, including children, should suck four or five of these tablets a day until they felt better.

Image courtesy: ICDS

Fake news has been a concern since the outbreak of COVID-19, with the Internet making it even easier to spread it. See some of our fact checks on the subject here.

The deadliness of WW1 coupled with censorship of the press and poor record-keeping made tracking and reporting on the virus very tedious. This explains why the flu remains of interest to date as some questions are yet to be answered. In contrast, Media coverage on COVID-19 has been commendable and very useful to the public in providing much-needed answers.

Treatment/Vaccine

When the Spanish flu hit, medical technology and countermeasures were limited or non-existent at the time. No diagnostic tests or influenza vaccines existed. The federal government also lacked a centralized role in helping to plan and initiate interventions during the pandemic.

Many doctors prescribed medication that they felt would be effective in alleviating symptoms, including aspirin. Patients were advised to take up to 30 grams per day, a dose now known to be toxic. It is now believed that some of the deaths were actually caused or hastened by aspirin poisoning.

The first licensed flu vaccine appeared in America in the 1940s and from there on, manufacturers could routinely produce vaccines that would help control and prevent future pandemics.

Fast forward to 2020; clinical trials of COVID-19 treatments/vaccines are either ongoing or recruiting patients. The drugs being tested range from repurposed flu treatments to failed Ebola drugs, blood pressure drug (Losartan), an immunosuppressant (Actemra- an arthritis drug) and malaria treatments developed decades ago.

An antiviral drug called Favipiravir or Avigan, developed by Fujifilm Toyama Chemical in Japan is showing promising outcomes in treating at least mild to moderate cases of COVID-19.

As of now, doctors are using available drugs and health support systems such us ventilators to alleviate symptoms. There have been over 500,000 recoveries so far.

Doctors in China, South Korea, France and the U.S. have been using Chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine on some patients with promising results. The FDA is organizing a formal clinical trial of the drug, which has already been approved for the treatment of malaria, lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.

Mistakes

The mistakes and delays in taking quick action we are experiencing today with COVID-19 are not new. In the summer of 1918, a second wave of the Spanish flu returned to the American shores as infected soldiers came back home. With no vaccine available, it was the responsibility of the local authorities to come up with plans to protect the public, at a time when they were under pressure to appear patriotic and with a censored media downplaying the disease’s spread.

Some bad decisions were made in the process. In Philadelphia for instance, the response came in too little too late. The then director of Public Health and Charities for the city, Dr Wilmer Krusen, insisted that the increasing fatalities were not the Spanish flu but the normal flu. This left 15,000 dead and another 200,000 sick. Only then did the city close down public places.

The End Of the Pandemic

The pandemic came to an end by the end of the summer of 1919. Those who were infected either died or developed immunity. The world has experienced other flu outbreaks since then but none as deadly as the Spanish flu.

The Asian flu (H2N2), first Identified in China from 1957-1958, killed around 2 million people worldwide. The Hong Kong (H3N2), first detected in Hong Kong, from 1968-1969, killed about 1 million people. Between 1997-2003, Bird flu (H5N1), first detected in Hong Kong, killed over 300 people. More recently in 2009-2010, the Swine flu (H1N1), which originated from Mexico, killed over 18,000 people.

The world’s population has increased from 1.8 billion to 7.7 billion since 1918. Animals alike, which are used for food, have also increased significantly, giving room for more hosts for novel flu viruses to infect people. Transport systems have gotten better making global movement of people and goods much easier and faster, further widening the spread of viruses to other geographical regions.

Even though considerable medical, technological and societal advancements have been made since 1918, the best defence against the current pandemic continues to be the development of vaccine or herd immunity. The biggest challenge, however, is the time required to manufacture a new vaccine. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, CDC, it generally takes about 20 weeks to select and manufacture a new vaccine.

Dr Eddy Okoth Odari, a senior lecturer and researcher of Medical Virology in the Department of Medical Microbiology at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology breaks it down as follows:

“It is anticipated that “herd immunity” would protect the vulnerable groups. We must, however, appreciate that natural “herd immunity” may only occur when a sizeable number of the population gets infected. I note with concern that we may not know and should not gamble with the immunity or health of our populations. This would then call for an “induced herd immunity” through vaccination. Therefore as at now, we must increase our efforts in developing an effective vaccine.”

The World Health Organization (WHO) published instructions for countries to use in developing their own national pandemic plans, as well as a checklist for pandemic influenza risk and impact management. But even with all these plans, there are still loopholes that could still be devastating in the face of a pandemic, as we are currently witnessing.

Healthcare systems are getting overwhelmed and some hospitals and doctors are struggling to meet the demand from the number of patients requiring care. The manufacture and distribution of medications, products and life-saving medical equipment such as ventilators, masks and gloves have also significantly increased, seeing as there is already a shortage being experienced. Dr Okoth has a good explanation for this:

“Translation of research findings into proper policies has been slow since policy formulators have insisted on evidence. For example, as early as March 2019, publications had hinted into a possibility of a virus crossing over from bats to human populations in China, but unfortunately, there was no proper preparedness and if any, perhaps the magnitude of this potential infection was underestimated. Finally, the geopolitical wars and political inclinations among the superpowers are not helping much in the war against infectious diseases. When the pandemic started it was viewed as a Chinese problem, in fact, other nations insisted in it being called a “Chinese virus” or “Wuhan virus”. Even with clear evidence that the virus would spread outside China, the WHO (perhaps to appear neutral) insisted that China was containing the virus and delayed in declaring this a pandemic – the net result of this was that other countries became reluctant in upscaling their public health measures, yet other countries seem to have been keen not to be on the bad books of China.”

There is no telling how long the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic will go on for or when and how it will end, but global preparation for pandemics clearly still warrant improvement as Dr Okoth advises.

“Perhaps the lessons that we learn here is that diseases will not need permission to cross borders and since the world has become a global village, there should be proper investments in global health and scientific research.”

This article was originally published by Africa Uncensored. Graphics by Clement Kumalija.

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Data Stories

Will 10 Million Kenyans Get At Least One Dose of a COVID-19 Vaccine by Christmas Day?

Based on the MOH daily cumulative number of vaccines administered, Kenya is on course to have 10 million vaccines administered by Christmas, based on the predictive AutoRegressive Integrated Moving Average (ARIMA( 5,2,1)) model.

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Will 10 Million Kenyans Get At Least One Dose of a COVID-19 Vaccine by Christmas Day?
Photo: Mika Baumeister on Unsplash
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During his eighth and last State of the Nation address on 30 November 2021, Uhuru Kenyatta reminded the nation of his pledge to have at least 10 million Kenyans vaccinated by Christmas. With just 25 days to go, the president urged Kenyans to get vaccinated to meet and surpass that target.

On the day of the president’s address, just 7,175,590 doses of the 13,909,670 received in the country had been administered.

The pressure to vaccinate Kenyans has been increasing. Data shared by the Ministry of Health in late November indicated that less than 10 per cent  of the targeted population was fully vaccinated and about 15 per cent had received at least one of the  COVID-19 vaccine doses.

Just nine days before the president encouraged Kenyans to get their COVID jabs, Cabinet Secretary for Health,  Mutahi Kagwe announced some tough measures. He said that Kenyans will be required to show proof of vaccination when boarding domestic flights, trains and buses, and while travelling from one region to another.

“Everybody seeking in-person government services should be fully vaccinated and proof of vaccination availed by December 21st 2021,” he said. “Such service will include but not limited to KRA services, education, immigration services, hospital and prison visitation, NTSA and Port services among others.”

The announcement sparked much debate among the public. Human rights defenders argued that the measures violated freedom of choice and threatened to deny basic services to citizens. Some taxpayers even joked about not paying their taxes since if they were unvaccinated, they would not be receiving government services.

Business owners, especially in the tourism sector, criticised the potential negative impact of these pronouncements on their businesses which experience a boom during the Christmas holidays.

But in the week following this announcement, the number of doses administered daily increased to over 100,000, except on the Saturday and Sunday. This is a significant rise. If we take data beginning on 28 September 2021, when MOH began to consistently upload the status reports, the average number of vaccines administered on a daily basis since that date was 52,796.

Vaccine roll out

The vaccination process has been highly dependent on the availability of vaccines, with more than half being  donations from higher-income countries like the US, UK, Denmark, Poland, France, etc.

Where the dates have been disclosed, the duration to expiry of the donated batches was between 25 and 136 days. While the Johnson & Johnson  batch that the government of Kenya had received on 3 September 2021, just before it last reported the expiry date of various vaccine batches, had 635 days to expiry.

It is not reported whether there were any vaccines that were discarded because they had expired.

Kenya had received 13,909,670 vaccines by 30 November 2021. The challenge is to match uptake with the now increased availability of vaccines. More than half of these vaccines are yet to be administered.

So, how likely is it that the government will have every adult Kenyan vaccinated by 21 December 2021 to avoid the consequences announced by CS Kagwe? Or is President Kenyatta’s Christmas pledge more realistic?

Predictions

Based on the MOH daily cumulative number of vaccines administered, Kenya is on course to have 10 million vaccines administered by Christmas, based on the predictive AutoRegressive Integrated Moving Average (ARIMA) model.

But this forecast will become reality if more Kenyans are persuaded to take the time to visit their nearest medical facility which according to the President is now stocked with the vaccine doses.

More realistically, about 9 million doses could be administered by Christmas if all factors remain constant.

The cumulative number of vaccines administered is non-stationary, meaning that it has a time-dependent structure and does not have constant variance over time. This can be  attributed to pattern changes based on the availability of COVID-19 vaccine doses in the country and also due to various efforts undertaken by the ministry at different times.

It is clear, however, that the uptake of the doses has now become steady. But the uptake is not increasing at the same rate as the vaccines are becoming available. This could be because of ineffective communication to the public. Also, there may be vaccination apathy following the long waits for sufficient vaccines, the long queues once they become available and visits to medical facilities only to find no vaccine. I made one such visit which was disappointing.

Worthy of note is that in August the government issued its first vaccine mandate to all public servants who were compelled to get COVID jabs or face disciplinary action.

Now, over 95 per cent of health workers and teachers are fully vaccinated. The new mandate widened the scope to the general population, including millions of jobless Kenyans, and seems to be bearing fruit already.

Data management challenges

The prediction above is based on the kind of data the ministry of health has released. The MOH Twitter page and website have been the main avenues through which vaccination progress has been communicated.

Looking at the vaccination data, one gets a sense of how the data aspect of this pandemic has been a case of “building a plane while you fly it”. This can be seen in the way data is released for public use.

Data is first shared in the form of images on twitter and PDF documents are then uploaded on the MOH website.

Let us drill down to illustrate some problems by focusing on 14 July 2021.

  • The vaccines that had been administered on this day were 1,565,344.
  • The same status report indicates that 31 first dose and 1034 second dose were administered on that same day.
  • Total vaccinations on 15 July 2021 were 1,590,765. It is not clear why the difference between the two days is 25,421, since the doses reported to have been administered on the 15th are 263 for the first dose and 6730 for the second dose.
  • The discrepancy is not comprehensible and it is the case for many other days until much later, in November, when the numbers start to add up.

Additionally, the number of total daily vaccinations in the status reports uploaded on the MOH website differs with what is in the Humanitarian Data Exchange (HDX), HUMDATA, an open platform for sharing data across organisations which relies on figures that are verifiable based on official public sources including Our World in Data (OWID) who in turn extract data from the updates from the MOH twitter timeline as well as on the website.

Another major issue for anyone seeking to explore Kenya’s vaccination data is missing data.

Dataset such as HUMDATA and OWID had data scraped from the MOH twitter updates initially.   We had to  combine data from the HUMDATA dataset and MOH status reports together to reduce the amount of missing data. However some figures recorded by Humdata were a day ahead compared to the figures in the available status reports presented on the MOH website.

The level of readiness in terms of how to capture and manage  the data is questionable. The status reports shared had not captured or anticipated the assortment and diversity of the vaccines Kenya would receive over time. Several elements (variables) are introduced at different times. This makes any automated technique of extracting the data extremely difficult and time-consuming. For example, up until 1 July, the reports had “Cumulative persons vaccinated to date”. But this was changed  to “Total vaccinations” to cater for those who were receiving their second doses of the AstraZeneca vaccination which began on 28 May 2021. Later it emerged that just a single dose of Johnson & Johnson would amount to full vaccination status so official data was changed from Dose 1 and Dose 2 to partially and fully vaccinated persons.

Gender was another variable that evolved with time. Initially genders were badged male, female and “other”. This was later changed to “intersex”, and “transgender” was subsequently added.

These discrepancies, in addition to the data provided in PDF forms, make it extremely difficult and time consuming for experts to explore the data and for the public to monitor the accountability and transparency of the vaccine uptake.

This OUTBREAK story was supported by Code for Africa’s WanaData program as part of the Data4COVID19 Africa Challenge hosted by l’Agence française de développement (AFD), Expertise France, and The GovLab

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Secondary Education: Kenya Needs to Think Beyond 100% Transition

COVID-19 has shown that there is a need for revolutionary thinking within the education sector if all children are to get a chance of an education.

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Secondary Education: Kenya Needs to Think Beyond 100% Transition
Photo: Mwesigwa Joel on Unsplash
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The Ministry of Education in Kenya has continued to push for 100 per cent transition of pupils who sit for the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) examinations in order to ensure that every child gets the full benefits of a secondary education.

Secondary school is the bridge between primary level education and tertiary education whose benefits go beyond attaining a formal education. For instance, secondary education contributes to the reduction of HIV infection among girls, as they are able to delay becoming sexually active and avoid early marriages. Access to a secondary school education also reduces poverty among girls and enhances their chances of employment. Secondary education also benefits the whole society as girls, and the youth in general, spend more time in school, and are therefore less likely to become involved in violence, either as perpetrators or as victims of crime.

Moreover, evidence shows that a secondary education leads to a decline in socio-economic inequality between girls and boys, with secondary education having the most effect on bridging the gap. Furthermore, evidence suggests that children of educated mothers are more likely to progress and complete school than those children whose mothers are not educated. Overall, a secondary education levels the field of opportunity for young people and increases their chances of earning higher incomes and thereby attaining a higher standard of living.

What is the status of enrolment in secondary school?

The status of enrollment in secondary school
Data from the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics shows that between 2016 to 2020 secondary school enrolment by class and sex grew by 8 per cent to about 3,520,000, out of which 50.3 per cent were girls. This increase was attributed to the government’s policy of ensuring 100 per cent transition from primary to secondary school. Looking at the 2020 school year, following the COVID-19 pandemic, Kenya’s total secondary school enrolment decreased from 3.5 million in March 2020 to 3.3 million in March 2021, a 5.7 per cent drop as schools reopened. Moreover, out of those enrolled in March 2020, approximately 233,300 students did not return to school to resume learning when schools reopened in March 2021, representing 6.6 per cent of the students enrolled in March 2020. The number of secondary schools that were able to reopen increased by 0.4 per cent.

A persistent problem

While between 2016 and 2020, there was an increase in the number of pupils transitioning to secondary school, the decrease in enrolment between March 2020 and March 2021 prompted the Ministry of Education to reach out to parents across the country in a bid to ensure that all children returned to school. The drive faced challenges including poverty, poor parental attitudes towards education and ad hoc policy implementation.

Evidence shows that a secondary education leads to a decline in socio-economic inequality between girls and boys.

But by far the most common and most significant challenge to the push for 100 per cent transition to secondary school has been poverty. Many parents say that a lack of resources hinders them from sending their children to secondary school, a challenge that has been exacerbated by the impact of COVID-19 on household incomes across the county. Parental attitudes where for one reason or another parents resist sending their children to school also pose a challenge. Calls for parents’ cooperation from the Cabinet Secretary for Education echo my reflections in a 2018 article where I observed that “bottom-up strategies” may be useful in creating the groundswell for the transition push. This would help avoid the implementation of haphazard policies such as sending government officials around the counties to “drive children back to school”. If parents work with both the national and county governments, they will create a sustained push to ensure that students not only make a transition to the first year of secondary school but that they also stay in school.

Why we may need to reimagine education

Why we may need to re-imagine education
In addition to stimulating an attitude shift in parents, particularly towards their children’s education, it is important that the Ministry of Education, in collaboration with Non-Governmental organizations, develop programmes that can empower the parents financially to keep their children in school. The Advanced Learning Outcomes project (ALOT Change), a community-based initiative by the African Population and Health Research Center (APHRC), has been instrumental in working with parents in Nairobi’s informal settlements so that they can better understand their own roles in the education of their children.

By far the most common and most significant challenge to the push for 100 per cent transition to secondary school has been poverty.

Education stakeholders in both the public and private sector need to work in close partnership to seek better ways of providing scholarships for those children who are in need of school fees support. Through A LOT Change, APHRC has provided subsidies to pupils transitioning to secondary school. The US$ 113 subsidy has been instrumental in decreasing the financial burden of parents, as they are able to purchase books, school uniforms, and other materials required for school. The lessons learned from such programmes can be adopted and scaled up by both the public and private sectors in order to provide relief to parents facing financial challenges.

Some of the students who were “driven back” to the first year of secondary school had to go to school in their primary school uniform. Might it also be time for the education system in Kenya to reconsider the issue of school uniforms? This could also contribute in a small way to reducing the financial burden for parents. Moreover, COVID-19 has shown that there is a need for revolutionary thinking within the education sector if all children are to get a chance an education. The government therefore needs to ensure that schools are better able to take advantage of emerging technologies such as EdTech by, for instance, improving school infrastructure (including computer labs) and access to electricity. This would enable schools to provide both virtual and in-classroom teaching and thus ensure that students get the best of blended learning, linking the finest tenets of in-person and virtual learning.

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Data Stories

Deedha: How Pastoralists Communities Are Effectively Managing Drought and Conflict

With climate trend likely to worsen, it is crucial now for development partners, Civil Society Organizations (CSOs), and policymakers to rethink climate change adaptation and management in light of pastoralist’s indigenous knowledge and traditional resource governance structure such as Deedha to protect pastoralism which has continued to provide a lifeline to millions of households in the horn of Africa.

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Deedha: How Pastoralists Communities Are Effectively Managing Drought and Conflict
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The first known drought in Northern Kenya was about 120 years ago (Wajir 1901, Mandera and Garissa 1902, Tana River 1905, and Isiolo 1927). Since then, 30 major droughts have been recorded in Northern Kenya. While a slow-onset disaster, drought occurrence has reduced to an interval of every 1-2 years in the last two decades.

Despite Africa’s minimal role in global warming, climate risks in Africa are growing bigger and continue to impact negatively rural agriculture and the pastoral economy.

In northern Kenya, drought often results in loss of lives and livelihoods, forcing thousands of households to drop out of pastoralism. Additionally, the Lack of rains undermines the growth of pasture and water availability for both humans and livestock. And as scarcity sets in, the use, control, and access to pasture and water are contested, often leading to risks of violent conflict.

Drought uncertainty triggers an old age survival strategy; – mobility where pastoralists either move to escape drought, conflict, or both. This strategy is incorporated within a traditional resource governance mechanism called Deedha amongst the Borana pastoralists group living in southern Ethiopia and Northern Kenya counties of Isiolo and Marsabit.

Deedha: How Pastoralists Communities Are Effectively Managing Drought and Conflict
Practiced over a century, the system is elaborate; ‘it considers and plans how pasture and water resource’ is planned to last between seasons. Unique and structured, Deedha planning depends on the number of rains received and the pasture regenerated. So effective is the ‘system’ that the knowledge has supported the rearing of cattle to date despite high vulnerability and weak resilience traits.

For a long time in Kenya, cattle keeping has remained synonymous with the Maasai people. Yet in Kenya’s north and southern Ethiopia, the Borana communities have kept cows for equally long periods, so valued attached is that they have family names.

Various groups, including men, women, and young men, have also composed songs praising the cow’s beauty, walking style, milk yields, and how the herd owner moves around with them in the best of rangelands with constant surveillance against the raiders.

So emotive is any cattle disposal plan that a family meeting must be called, where reasons are evaluated to ascertain whether the sale is justified or not.

Another anecdote is also told of how various species respond to different needs, particularly water where camel would stay for a more extended period, followed by goats and sheep and cow in that order. At the same time, this story avers different resilience traits; the Boran has refused to divorce themselves from cattle keeping despite scaled up advocacy on the need for livelihood diversification in the wake of climate change and conflict risks.

Promotes Sustainable use of rangelands

Founded on the principle of sustainable use of the rangelands, the Deedha system is reciprocal. It encourages sharing resources and providing a safe drought haven for other pastoralist groups from other fragile counties such as Wajir, Garissa, Marsabit, Samburu, and even Laikipia.

The system is designed to encourage mobility over large tracts of land, helping the pastoralists break the pest cycle, aerate the soil (breakdown of soil with hooves), and manage unwanted vegetation.

The institution of Deedha is headed primarily by an elder, with each area having its Deedh (traditional grazing area to a particular group), which is linked to other deedha’s.

Informal but highly effective, the Deedha employs critical rangeland management, where the systems consider rangeland planning based on ecological vulnerabilities, livestock populations, an anticipated influx in determining when and where livestock moves, and whether there is a need for activation of the strategic boreholes.

The system partitions the rangeland into three grazing parts as dry, wet, and drought grazing areas, with also flash floods along the Ewaso Ngiro River considered as a season and blessing due to pasture regeneration in the swampy areas. In managing and protecting the rangelands, the Deedha traditional systems discourage sedentarization in strategic rangeland as part of conservation strategy after the use and boreholes areas, where Genset/pumps are mobilized during drought crises and demobilized on the fall of rain.

Manage drought and conflict

The system also incorporates the young people into Deedha resource planning and use and this is for two reasons; undertake pasture and security surveillance (Aburu and shalfa) in the far-flung Deedha’s which borders known or perceived enemy territory.

The system is so unique that critical access planning is done based on anticipated risks and livestock (species) vulnerabilities where Hawich (Milking herd) and non-milking herds (Guess) are split as defined by production and physical traits, respectively.

Hawich (Milking herds) are lactating, and some old and weak female breeds while non-Milking (Gues) are young female and male breeds with the ability to trek long distances searching for pasture and water. The system also calls for the protection of migratory and watering routes. While water for all livestock species is a priority, this customary system prioritized water for livestock in transit and the donkey over other livestock species for its role in household management. The system’s effectiveness has also seen it advocates for the protection of watershed areas and ensuring the cleanliness of the water point environs after all the livestock has been watered.

Deedha: How Pastoralists Communities Are Effectively Managing Drought and Conflict
The Deedha also has in place resource sharing plans internally and externally, where Deedha in one location consult another Deedha before any decision is made. Such arrangement is also captured and advocated for by more recent attempts in enhancing resource sharing and ending conflict through such declaration as the Modogashe-Garissa, first entered in 2001 which calls for strengthening of resource governance and sharing framework between communities during drought. Thus, Deedha proactively enhances resilience through resource sharing and a framework for negotiations between communities during drought.

While Isiolo also had its fair share of drought, the use of this highly effective system has cushioned pastoralist group in Isiolo against the drought, only making foray into other communities’ rangeland in 1992 when Isiolo livestock moved to then Moyale District, Kauro in Samburu in 2000 and 2017 again to Moyale. The migration in 2017 was necessitated by fear following conflict escalation between the Borana and Samburu, leading to loss of 7 lives and over 3000 head of cattle in what the local Borana communities cite as security imbalances created by the Northern Rangeland Trust (NRT) to instil fear and force local pastoralists communities to abandon key strategic drought reserve in Chari Rangelands in favour of wildlife conservancies.

Untold, Deedha also calls for the protection of endangered tree species such as AcaciaAnthath and Qalqalch in which users are not allowed to overexploit, with individuals found out on the wrong punished. Equally, the system put communities at the Centre of wildlife conservation as it discourages reckless killing either for food or even trophies. The system also advocates for leaving water in the trough for wildlife to access in areas where the only water sources are deep wells.

Deedha is an example of bottom-up ‘law or rules’ for rangeland management; it addresses environmental and wildlife conservation. Like in predictive climate science, Deedha elders consider planning on how the previous seasons have performed. Further, the elders can predict trends and rain behaviour patterns based on Uchu, who closely work with the institution of elders.

With climate trend likely to worsen, it is crucial now for development partners, Civil Society Organizations (CSOs), and policymakers to rethink climate change adaptation and management in light of pastoralist’s indigenous knowledge and traditional resource governance structure such as Deedha to protect pastoralism which has continued to provide a lifeline to millions of households in the horn of Africa.

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