Ideas & Debate

Basic income, free face masks needed in the slums urgently

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As the government continues to work out an adequate and fair response to the huge rise in virus infections and accelerating death rate, out of the box thinking is required. FILE PHOTO | NMG

Summary

  • As the government continues to work out an adequate and fair response to the huge rise in virus infections and accelerating death rate, out of the box thinking is required.
  • Complete area lockdowns hurt socio-economic development, while clearly helping to reduce Covid-19 infections.
  • Yet reduced development devastates incomes, especially of the poor who even find it difficult to pay for face-masks.
  • It also leads to deaths from hunger and disease, and raises the risk of crime and violence.

As the government continues to work out an adequate and fair response to the huge rise in virus infections and accelerating death rate, out of the box thinking is required. Complete area lockdowns hurt socio-economic development, while clearly helping to reduce Covid-19 infections.

Yet reduced development devastates incomes, especially of the poor who even find it difficult to pay for face-masks. It also leads to deaths from hunger and disease, and raises the risk of crime and violence.

Consequently there must be a carefully targeted response to lockdown, coupled with increased personal responsibility. Banning large get-togethers unless all wear face masks covering both mouth and nose is a must. There is no doubt that wearing face masks properly is key to preventing the spread of the disease. Right now only 30 percent (according to our daily tally in our neighbourhood in Nairobi) wear face masks correctly and these are mainly women. At the coast the figure is far lower, at less than five percent.

Thus it is clear that personal responsibility is lacking to wear face masks, even by those who can afford them. A major campaign is required to alert the public in general and poor people especially. Methods of alert so far via television, radio and the press have unfortunately failed — even in sophisticated countries with higher readership and coverage. A new approach must include more social media and increased controls.

The campaign should feature the link between jobs, prosperity, and even lockdown, for each area where face-mask wearing is low or non-existent. Further, facemasks must be made free in the slums, and users coached on the need to wash them daily with soap and water.

Even in the best case scenario income levels will continue to be down, as external factors such as tourist flows suffer because of the pandemic.

But there is a modest solution. Economic activities, especially with incoming tourists, will increase if it is known how serious the government takes the personal responsibility of all Kenyans — as the President has so clearly been showing. Tourists should be encouraged to adopt mask-wearing as part of their own personal responsibility.

The bargain is therefore you do something for me dear tourist, face-masking and social distancing, and we’ll do something for you through ensuring the personal responsibility of our citizens. The latter includes what we are seeing now, the selective opening of hotels, bars and restaurants, with closure immediately invoked should they ignore their responsibilities.

We know of a case where a restaurant and bar owner on the beach pays for his staff out of his own pocket, ensures adequate table and social distancing, sanitises all touchable surfaces continuously, and only keeps negative-tested staff. The risk of infection is very low or non-existent, as the winds blow around his establishment. But he has closed. His staff are on minimal wages, and tourists have cancelled their stays.

The brave attempts to distribute desperately needed food are misguided. Cash is the key and then the poor can buy what they need. They will buy food and thereby stimulate local markets but they will not necessarily buy face masks, so these must be given free on condition of penalties if they don’t.

We noted before that cash transfers to vulnerable families increased mutual support between beneficiaries; reduced tensions; and improved relationships within the community. Even better news is that each Sh1,000 of cash assistance can generate more than double that, most of which will be spent locally. Then, with cash, people were able to buy what they most needed, whether food, rent or other essentials.

A huge difficulty is that corruption has led to most cash distribution schemes failing. There are too many steps to take, with slow and bureaucratic government mechanisms. As we suggested before, a basic income can be sent only to areas where poor people live, distributed via M-Pesa to those with mobile phones. Of course some will have more than one phone and others none — estimated at a mere three percent in the slums. But the sharing culture there would reduce the hardship of the few without.

As insisted before, our technical contacts at mobile phone companies are confident they can identify most poor people in the vicinity of a transmission mast through a technique known as “geo-fencing”. Yes, some people who don’t need the cash would be included. But if distributed after curfew it would exclude passers-by.

Worse, some who desperately need the cash might also be excluded. However, geo-fencing ensures that it is the people in need who do obtain the cash, while corruption can just about be eliminated.

Meanwhile the quest for perfection breeds paralysis. It is better to start now, since cash is desperately needed by the vulnerable. We therefore once more urge the government to urgently consider distributing a basic income for the poor in the slums of Kenya… coupled with a strong emphasis on personal responsibility.

Hopkins is Professor of CSR and co-founder Institute for Responsible Leadership

Eldon is Chairman, The DEPOT and co-founder Institute for Responsible Leadership

Munro is a former UN Senior Policy Adviser on Sustainable Development and MYSA Founder Chairman