Kenya’s reaction to the Coronavirus pandemic that has ravaged the world hit a reset button for the planet is a case study on its own. Recently appointed Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe has been hailed as the Coronavirus hero in the manner he is handling the pandemic with his daily media briefings. To an undiscerning eye Mr. Kagwe and the entire Jubilee government he represents is doing a great job vis a vis COVID-19, but are they? There is no question COVID-19 has disrupted lives and economies, large and small. It has served as a great equalizer, it knows no boundaries, race, wealth, social status, religion, political affiliation, etc. To many of faith, it is a wake-up call and a renewal of faith of God and an affirmation of human fragility.
However, to those recognize and seize them, this pandemic could also turn out to be a blessing in disguise and yield new opportunities where none existed before particularly for African countries as I explain below. Governments around the world have responded to COVID-19 in different ways to stop its spread, some have borne the brunt of it more than others. Evidence shows that governments that took proactive steps to mitigate the effects of the pandemic have succeeded in reducing deaths and adverse effects on their people and those who merely reacted to COVID-19 have suffered prolonged adverse effects that are likely to linger for quite a while. Whereas it is true that the world has not dealt with such a pandemic since the Spanish flu of 1918, it is also true that we have had notable outbreaks including EBOLA, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) upon which most government’s referenced their response to COVID-19. The same cannot be said of Kenya. Despite advance warnings, several weeks’ worth, the Kenyan government appears to have been broadsided, caught completely flatfooted but analysis of the government’s response demonstrates that its response was purposely delayed and calculated to exploit the pandemic to fulfill a different agenda far removed from mitigating the effects of the pandemic and here is why:
Importing the disease – On Thursday February 28, 2020, at the onset of the COVID-19 outbreak, a China Southeast Airlines carrying 239 passengers from Wuhan province in China, the epicenter of the pandemic was allowed to land in Kenya. The passengers were allowed into the country and asked to “self-quarantine” for 14 days. Understandably this triggered a major public uproar against the government for risking the country’s population by allowing so many potential COVID-19 vectors in the country to spread the disease in a country least equipped to handle the outbreak. When confronted to explain their decision, Ministry of Health Chief Administrative Secretary Rashid Aman at the was quoted as responding, “Stopping Chinese nationals from coming to Kenya over Coronavirus is “discriminatory”. At the time, other countries such as the United States were responding by closing their borders and banning flights in and out of their borders. For perspective, in South Korea, one lady introduced COVID-19 that ultimately spread to hundreds of thousands and put the entire country at risk and set the country into panic. Now multiply that by 239 potential vectors being allowed into the country and it spells as a death sentence on hundreds or thousands of innocent civilians. This was the height of irresponsibility by the government. To date the passengers’ were never traced, tested nor their COVID-19 status revealed to Kenyans, basically they were exempt and allowed to permeate into the country where they have potentially spread the virus nationally. Kenyans are the ones paying the price.
Curfews, Police extortion, brutality & Deaths – This is perhaps the tragic part of this pandemic where the cure is worse than the disease. Kenya is ranked one of the worst countries on planet earth where the government’s treatment of civilians and the resulting deaths and injuries actually surpass the pandemic itself. Citizens did not invite this pandemic and they are being visited with untold suffering and brutality through no fault of their own, it is callous to the extreme. Instances of police extortion and demand for bribes have been documented, in most cases this pandemic has turned out to be a great money making opportunity for a few in government and the police force who exploit this tragedy for personal gain. Donations from outside have ended in private pockets, police enforcing the poorly crafted “curfew” are making a killing in extorted bribes from civilians; it is simple, you pay the bribe or be sent to a 14 day mandatory quarantine at your own cost.
As Kenya rolled the red carpet to passengers from COVI-19 China and amid the public outrage it soon became apparent to the government that this was a serious global pandemic and Kenya was no exception. The government, taking cue from governments around the world, formed a new team and dispatched the newly appointed Health cabinet Secretary Hon. Mutahi Kagwe to manage the pandemic. On Thursday March 26, 2020 President Uhuru Kenyatta ordered a nationwide dusk to dawn (7PM to 5AM) effective on Friday the 27. What followed the next day was unmitigated police brutality meted on Kenyans who were trying to comply with the President’s order. For Kenyans it was the proverbial “from the frying pan straight into the fire” as the police systematically descended on Kenyans trying to beat the president’s curfew and assaulted them mercilessly. Mind you these Kenyans were getting off work and rely on an archaic and dysfunctional public transportation system that is way overdue an overhaul and that is notorious for traffic jams and delays but Kenya’s finest did not care. From the Likoni Ferry transit in Mombasa, Nairobi transit stations and several other locations in the country, it was OPEN SEASON against Kenyans, they wailed on innocent civilians like piñatas, I mean clobbered them like stray dogs and by the time the brutality was halted or moved from public view to behind the curtains, police had killed 3 people, at the time COVID-19 deaths were 4, do the math.
Kenya Abandons Its Citizens and Embraces Chinese Racial Brutality – This is a double whammy against Kenyans who have nowhere else to turn because while Kenyans at home are fighting this pandemic without any help to speak of, the Chinese in China blatantly not only discriminated against Africans in China including Kenyans by forcibly removing them from their homes, hotel rooms and kicking them to the streets; physically assaulting them and denying them access to shops or means to survive. The images and videos in social media of Africans in China being treated as wild animals are heart wrenching. But what’s even more painful is the Kenyan government’s response to the stranded and distressed Kenyans call for help. The Kenyan government simply abandoned its citizens dismissed their cries for help, pure and simple. The government did not lift a finger to protest to the Chinese government against the violence meted against Kenyans in China. When asked in Parliament why the government has abandoned its people in China, the response was stunningly painful. The Ministry of foreign affairs PS said those were “noises of the youth” and that it was impossible to evacuate Kenyans from China, that those Kenyans must obey Chinese law albeit discriminatory. In short the government wholeheartedly embraced the maltreatment of its citizens in China, that is truly regrettable.
COVID-19 is not a Part-time Daytime Pandemic – Coronavirus doesn’t take a day break, the concept of social distancing is a 24/7 concept because the virus does not take a day break, it is not a conformist virus that kowtows to the whims of governments and yet that’s exactly how the Jubilee government responded. This was yet another utterly inexplicable government blunder i.e. the government allowed all normal day activities and only imposed a curfew at a time people would be home anyway. While governments around the world imposed social distancing day and night, the Jubilee regime only imposed a partial curfew that let the virus spread and proliferate during the day when the population is most active.
Misuse and Hoarding of Donor money – Last week the government, while briefing the nation of the number of Kenyans testing positive for COVID19, about 400 in total (by the way that number is grossly underreported), it also announced that it had spent 40 Billion Shillings to fight the virus. Kenyans were outraged, absolutely livid because on the face of it and common sense will tell you that was a bold face lie, it is impossible for the government to have spent 40 Billion shillings in the last one month to fight the pandemic when it has failed to provide basic sustenance to the its people and instead locked them down, sent others to forced quarantine at their own costs and refused to evacuate those distressed in foreign countries. This pandemic, unfortunately, is a gravy train for the corrupt in government, it is a conduit for corruption, to siphon money meant for the vulnerable to line the pockets of the few in government. Kenyans have not seen any accounting of the government’s claims. Developed countries and multilateral organizations including World Bank and the United States, recognizing the dangers poor countries faced, donated hundreds of Billions to poor countries to help their populations combat the effects of COVID-19. The funds were intended to provide basic supplies such as food to cushion the populations from lockdowns. Kenya received a substantial amount of these donations, surpassing 100 Billion Shillings. Rather than transfer these funds to where they were needed most the government hoarded money and did NOT speak or allow anyone to speak of it. Instead forced vulnerable Kenyans into mandatory lockdown to fend for themselves without any safety net whatsoever. The prudent thing for the government to do was to transfer these funds to the poor masses via mobile banking that the country invented (so no excuse). These transfers would help provide vulnerable Kenyans with basic sustenance such as food and basic supplies. The cash wasn’t for the government to keep. In America the populations forced into “shelter in place” are cushioned from adverse effects, the government is providing its people with means to live as the country combats this enemy. In Rwanda, President Paul Kagame led door to door delivery of food and other supplies to his people; in Ghana similar measures were put in place, free water, electricity and other basic amenities were extended to civilians at no charge, many other countries have used the aid they have received in a very positive way to shield their populations from harm. Kenya, not so much. We still don’t know or have any accounting of any substantive use the aid received has been used for. Granted the government is broke and living hand to mouth but these funds were not meant to plug any budgetary gaps in the government’s coffers. Worse, the money will end in corrupt officials’ pockets who are keen to exploit this unfortunate tragedy for personal gain. It is not too late, use the cash for the purpose it was intended.
Musicians Pay a misplaced priority – Responding to the public uproar President Kenyatta announced a new initiative of 10 Billion Shillings to aid the elderly, orphans and poor with basic needs and that was a good thing. However, in that announcement Kenyatta also announced that artists, primarily musicians who number in the hundreds all less, will be also be receiving 100 Million shillings per month in royalties. Nothing wrong with that but it is inexplicable to Kenyans why the President waded into musicians’ pay of Billions of shillings at a time when the country is facing existential threat from COVID-19. It rubbed many Kenyans the wrong way because of all the urgent priorities the president could address such as pay first responders, medics battling the pandemic, Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), just to mention a few, he prioritized pay of millions of shillings to musicians while the masses would receive pittance, that is if it gets to them in the first place, completely inexplicable to Kenyans. Wrong time, wrong priorities.
Silly Ruto/Odinga Politics – This is the theater of the absurd. In the raging battle between these two political nemesis positioning themselves to succeed president Kenyatta at the end of his term in 2022, Deputy President William Ruto and his supporters have chalked up the Coronavirus as God’s answer to their prayers to stop the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) orchestrated by its Grand Maestro Raila Odinga. Ruto and his supporters are keen not to let this pandemic go to waste but to take credit for a pandemic that has killed thousands around the world as a political gift from God is as diabolical as it gets.
Inadequate economic incentives – The government announced a rash of economic measures intended to help businesses. President Kenyatta just signed legislation into law that caps payroll taxes at 25% for low income earners, consumption/sales tax (VAT) down to 14% from 16% and the egregiously punitive “turnover” tax from 3% to 1%. The issue with these measures is that they fall short of what’s needed to keep the economy afloat, it was already fragile before COVID-19 and has since come to a standstill, so cutting taxes at this point, whereas welcome, does little to help. The barrels are already empty, tax relief on empty is still empty. It will still help down the road but we need immediate measures to jumpstart the economy.
OPPORTUNITY – FIXING THE ECONOMY
Amid this crisis there is a silver lining and great opportunities to those who see and seize them. This global reset should serve as an opportunity for African governments, Kenya in particular to reengineer their economies. Truth be told this COVID-19 has exposed the world’s overreliance on China and even as we go through this patch governments and companies around the world, especially in the West are recalibrating their relationships with China and plotting strategies to divest some of their production from China. Kenya in particular should jump on these opportunities on ALL FOURS because she enjoys great relationships with the West, particularly the United States and Britain. Kenya is poised to enter into Free Trade Agreement talks that will likely result in an Agreement. This would be an excellent opportunity for Kenya’s leaders to woo US companies with production facilities in China to move them to Kenya.