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Ideas & Debate

Corona has given us a moment for national reflection

hand sanitiser
A hand sanitiser being used by city residents as pictured on March 14, 2020. PHOTO | FRANCIS NDERITU | NMG 

After following the Coronavirus as some kind of foreign object, last Friday’s confirmation of Kenya’s first case shifted our attention away from the cacophony of “building bridges”, 2022 and a constitutional referendum in June that won’t happen. We have been amazed by the determination of China, Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore to “suppress”, and not simply “mitigate” the threat.

Europe is the new epicentre of the virus, with Thursday’s New York Times noting that more people have been infected and killed than in China. Border controls and movement restrictions are the new normal, and a third of Europe (250 million people) is in “lockdown”. Even Mr Trump admits this isn’t a hoax.

In a single week we moved from “herd immunity” and “second wave” (more COVID-19 in 2021) to what WHO Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus calls “isolate, test, treat and trace" strategy.

Kenya’s media-savvy response has been robust, going by the official press briefings we read and watch. Our “high-octane” political culture always finds good cause when we deal with real-life emergencies rather than imaginary enemies, and Coronavirus is most definitely one of them.

We’ve had tough talking updates and guidance from the President, Health Cabinet Secretary, and increasingly, governors. What is missing is the calming public assurance we have seen from Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, which has trended on social media and earned high praise from the WHO itself. In today’s times, it’s as important to “talk to” the people as it is to “talk at” them.

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Although we’re still at the “import” stage of the virus, with little knowledge about “local transmission”, let’s give government due praise thus far. While the response hasn’t been terribly strategic (e.g. in establishing a better coordinated and resourced national-county response framework going by concerns raised by governors), it has been reasonably tactical and surprisingly agile.

Tomorrow, we embark on a Day of National Prayer. I have always thought of prayer as comprising two essentials — reflection, then conversation — in that order. There is much to pray for in this uncertain present and fearful future. “Apocalypse” and “Armageddon” are words I hear.

So let’s use tomorrow’s “Coronavirus Prayer” as a moment for reflection. Here are four strands.

First, the virus and health. Coronavirus is first and foremost a public health issue, so while we are unsure about how it could spread across Kenya, it shines a bright light on the state of our healthcare system. This isn’t about whether or not we will cope, but why we need to ask the question in the first place. Until we treat health as human security rather than gadget procurement, we will never be at rest.

Second, the virus and society. The preventive measures seem disruptive locally. What does “working from home” mean to a workforce which is 80 percent informal, or the service industry at large? What does “social distancing” mean for the practices prevalent in our community settings?

How do we keep “clean hands” and “clean surfaces” when we’re “water-short” and “cash-scarce”? The underlying question, of course, is what is Kenyan society? This question seems well settled in East Asia.

Third, the virus and the economy. Outside health, our real disruption revolves around the economy. Private sector has called for fiscal stimulus, having watched in silence as we embarked on years of “budget abracadabra”. The market expects a 25 to 50 basis point rate cut by CBK next Monday.

The world outside Africa is busy preparing monster stimulus packages —$1 trillion in the US, $1.6 trillion across Germany, UK, Spain, Italy and France and at least another $300 billion across 15 other countries by my count. And that’s excluding China. In context, the ILO reckons total stimulus during the 2008-9 GFC was $2 trillion.

Treasury’s fiscal consolidation dream now lies in tatters, but this hasn’t stopped the National Assembly’s House Majority Leader from shamelessly proposing that county allocations be slashed. CBK has offered some proactive initial solutions to the banking sector. As elsewhere, what’s needed is some form of inclusive “economic security” package to support informal sector jobs and small business. Not to forget that, as with health, economic security for all should have been top of our agenda from Day One.

Finally, the virus and digital. Let’s keep it simple. Digital means we’re not dealing with coronavirus as the world did with the Spanish Flu, or the Great Plague. And going by public responses to this latest virus, it is also signalling the way of the future — no classes, e-learning; no hospitals, e-health; no office space, e-working; social distancing, e-living. Which leaves us with the basics — food, shelter, community.

Let’s close this reflection with a quote from the WHO Director-General, thus “(this) is an unprecedented opportunity to come together as one against an enemy; an enemy against humanity”

Maybe the lessons from this Coronavirus experience might do more for Kenya than BBI ever could.

Let us pray.

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