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Ideas & Debate

Kenya’s corona response must be great, not good

President Uhuru Kenyatta
President Uhuru Kenyatta. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

This article is written straight after our Government announced fiscal and monetary mitigation measures in its efforts to deal with the Coronavirus threat. It follows directives that many, particularly outside Nairobi, are ignoring. Within Nairobi, the clobber of “marauding Kenyans” is underway, two days before official curfew. Ask Gitanga Road residents.

It’s also written against a twin global backdrop.

One country, the US, wants a return to business as usual by Easter, as its President proclaims despite his country fast emerging as the pandemic’s latest epicentre.

Sierra Leone has announced a 12-month state of emergency, despite not registering any cases to date. Let’s view these as the polar extremes between which China, Europe and Iran plus Egypt, South Africa and Kenya fall.

Our traditional media has well explained the virus, and actions countries are taking. Social media is asking tough questions and proposing solutions guided by evidence-based strategy. The people have generally turned to séance, science or defiance for answers. Some have called this an “infodemic”.

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What did the President Uhuru Kenyatta’s Wednesday announcement tell us? Tax cuts for the formal sector in an informal economy; or less taxes for big and small jobs in corporates; not “cash cushions” for MSME workers. The temporary abandonment of credit ratings. More for social protection, and the hiring of health workers. Salary cuts for less than 100 senior government people. Sh35 billion in potential new credit from Central Bank rate cuts (interest and cash) as we work from home.

Add on a whole of government, not whole of society, approach, promising better working with counties. Promises to pay pending bills, and a call for struggling private sector to do likewise. And then, a big-stick curfew that one WhatsApp message I received described as a “marinated lockdown”.

Don’t forget the previous day’s unsigned “no wage increments, no wage negotiations” Labour and Social Protection statement that didn’t warrant Presidential mention, and looked, walked and talked like “Tangatanga”.

If only our leaders read The Elephant, to see that “things are truly elephant’. Patrick Gathara’s and David Ndii’s meticulous pieces this week are a good place to start.

What people seek is a policy approach that solves people’s problems, not a laundry list of suggestions. What people expect is a coherent government strategy, not ad-hoc initiatives “on the fly”. Mostly, what people respect is deep thinking and honest answers to a threat we struggle to understand, beyond concepts like working from home and social distancing.

The people want “great”, not just “good”.

Let’s build on my four reflections from last week.

First, the virus and health. This isn’t a health scare, it’s a health emergency. This requires a comprehensive emergency package, not people alone, not tools and gadgets alone, but the “full monty”.

People, beds, testing and treatment equipment, drugs for opportunistic infections and the like. Where’s containment, rather than mitigation, most needed? What’s the mix of men, money and machines needed to deliver this package?

Second, the virus and society. This pandemic isn’t for the short-term, so it will reshape social norms and behaviours. Where’s the conversation, rather than government fiat, that walks us through this? Lockdown, yes, but what’s the vision thereafter? Hygeine should have been obvious to us before this threat.

Overall discipline isn’t our forte, beginning with politicians, and we don’t mean communist order here. We’ve done civic education for a generation now, we probably need civic empowerment next. This is our trickiest across-society challenge, noting the important role that media can play.

Third, the virus and the economy. The economy reflects society, not the other way around. So, where, as a colleague noted, the owners of government are the owners of capital, it’s obvious that government lacks empathy with “little people”, even as MSMEs are a sexy buzzword.

We don’t protect jobs by cutting taxes, we do by actually retaining them. Economic empowerment anyone? Dr Ndii’s ideas around a “lifeline fund” for MSMEs represent the best Kenyan thinking I’ve seen this week.

Then there’s our discombobulated fiscus. Revenues will fall short. Debt service is killing us. Government refuses to restructure its spending. Yet, one suspects there’s enough reducible sin, sloth, sleaze and slumber in there to double its productivity while cutting a third of its cost.

Let’s throw all of these ideas, and more, at a socio-economic team that supplements the science team.

Finally, the virus and digital. Not our current vendor-driven “M-Pesa blah blah” digital economy blueprint, or giant 4G balloons. Not the Huduma Namba farce. Consider instead a futuristic vision for this fast-changing world; the meaning of digital for sectors, industries and government. Let’s leave the detail to a digital team that isn’t infested and infected by vendors.

A health emergency; a societal challenge; an economic slowdown and a digital opportunity. Before we say “regime change”, let’s find great solutions, not just half-good answers.

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