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Kenya Braced For The Worst. The Worst Didn't Happen. Why?


When the pandemic started, there were dire warnings about how it could devastate the African continent. In Kenya, though, the first wave has apparently come and gone with fewer than 700 deaths reported. Compare that to almost 200,000 deaths in the United States. Scientists are baffled. And NPR's Eyder Peralta went looking for answers.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: On a recent Sunday at Uhuru Park in downtown Nairobi, it was life as usual.


PERALTA: Families, lovers shared paddle boats in the lake at the center of the park. Alice Nyambura and Lucy Wahu, college sophomores, sit on the grass watching the boats. They're not even sure the coronavirus is real.

ALICE NYAMBURA: I don't think there is anything like corona - yes, it is, maybe.


LUCY WAHU: It is there, but they're exaggerating the numbers.

PERALTA: Just weeks ago, Kenya was girding for the worst as the country reported hundreds of cases daily. The health minister asked schools to prepare rooms to isolate all the people hospitals wouldn't be able to treat. Cemeteries dug mass graves. But then, just as quickly as the cases rose, they plummeted. Hospitals and cemeteries have not been overwhelmed. An official at Nairobi's largest public morgue said on his busiest day, he received only five bodies of COVID patients to bury. To Alice, all of this just sounds fishy.

WAHU: Yeah.

NYAMBURA: We have come down because of what? No vaccine, no medicine - how?



PERALTA: Without a treatment, without a vaccine, how did Kenya bend its curve? To get at some of this mystery, Dr. John Ojal and his colleagues at the Kenya Medical Research Institute put together a statistical model. They drew on testing data, results from a nationwide antibody study. And they used mobility data from Google to gauge how Kenyans were observing lockdowns. They concluded that in major Kenyan cities, the epidemic is already past its first peak. Not only that, but the scientists found the new coronavirus had raced through Kenya just as it did in Europe and in the United States.

JOHN OJAL: In Nairobi and Mombasa, for example, 30 to 40% of the population have been exposed.

PERALTA: This means the same proportion of people have been infected in Nairobi and Mombasa as in some of the hardest hit areas of New York City. Yet Kenya has had just over 600 deaths. And very few people have gotten seriously ill.

OJAL: If you do compare with what has happened elsewhere, then, yes, (laughter) Kenya has dodged a bullet.

PERALTA: Ojal's model predicts that if nothing big changes, like Kenyans suddenly abandoning all mitigation, or if we discover that immunity from this virus lasts only a few weeks, the epidemic will fizzle. By the end of the year, it predicts a fewer than 1,000 Kenyans will have died from COVID-19. Ojal's paper has not yet been peer-reviewed. But Dr. Shaun Truelove, a modelling specialist at Johns Hopkins University, says the study is good work. He worries, though, that the messaging may be too optimistic, especially because Kenya has limited testing. And the serological study used is a few months old. I asked him if he was surprised by the finding that at least one in three urban Kenyans have already had the virus.


PERALTA: I mean, is the data believable?

TRUELOVE: (Laughter) It's possible. It's possible.


TRUELOVE: Let's go with - let's say that.

PERALTA: But he says don't get hung up on the specifics.

TRUELOVE: I would caution taking each of those estimates and holding them as hard fact, you know, in their exact values. But they definitely are finding truth.

PERALTA: And that truth, says Truelove's colleague at Hopkins, Dr. Bill Moss, is this...

BILL MOSS: To me, there's no doubt that the anticipated kind of tragedy in sub-Saharan Africa hasn't materialized.

PERALTA: He said that's true even if African countries are likely undercounting infections and deaths. Moss has studied infectious diseases on the continent for decades. What no scientist knows is why this pandemic has not hit sub-Saharan Africa harder. Maybe it's the continent's young population, maybe some cross-immunity with another coronavirus. For now, those are just hypotheses.

Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Nairobi.

(SOUNDBITE OF STAN FOREBEE'S "INTROSPECTION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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