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Ideas & Debate

National-counties summit is meant for strategic talks

President Uhuru Kenyatta with county governors
President Uhuru Kenyatta with county governors during the 8th National and County Government Coordination Summit at State House, Nairobi. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

Monday July 27 will be the 209th day of the year; 137 days (two/thirds) of which have been about coronavirus since Kenya’s first case on March 13 (Day One). It’s also 21 days since President Uhuru Kenyatta announced a “phased reopening” of the country, and a promise to “revert” based on the data.

Let’s remember that, as Singapore’s Foreign Minister noted early on, this was the perfect “stress test” of countries’ health care systems, quality of governance and depth of social capital. It’s also tested the resilience and sustainability of our economy.

Successful responses have applied adaptive strategy and agile tactics to a fluid moment of constant “stress (over-capacity) testing”, not basic “load/capacity testing” on all four fronts. “Learning by doing”. Right, but let’s “do what we learn” too. Its strategy and tactics that matters, and that’s missing.

But this isn’t the time to critique Kenya’s response; we’ve already “baked the cake”. So let’s get really boring and quickly jump to Monday’s rescheduled Fifth Extraordinary Session of the National and County Governments Coordinating Summit (can one reschedule an extraordinary meeting?) that brings together the President and governors to review progress since the reopening. Recall first that the June 6 extension of restrictions was premised on a 30-day window to deliver on three irreducible minimums.

First, containment and reduction of new infections. Second, strengthened health care systems to cope with a surge of infections. Third, enhanced surveillance and contract tracing capacity. Basically, three important reasons for extended lockdown. Although we focused on bed capacity, there was a whole range of other conditions to be met: building community awareness and buy-in, strengthening public health mechanisms, establishing home care, implementing infection prevention and control in actual hospitals and getting case management right. The conditions weren’t met, but we reopened on July 6.

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In other words, the data didn’t inform the decision, or rather, the data wasn’t useful to the decision.

Expect the same at next Monday’s Summit which is both a report on county readiness and a review of “reopening” impacts. Governors want a return to selective lockdown, the President probably doesn’t. He may be right if we consider that selective lockdowns by counties could lead us to the ridiculous situation the US now finds itself in, where governors in “Covid-compliant” states are issuing travel advisories against those visitors from states that aren’t.

In any event, what specific purpose would a new lockdown serve when we already have community transmission? Prevention “left the building” long ago, now it’s all about mitigation

We know that counties are still not at full readiness (whatever that means), and are now arguing in the latest Council of Governors press statement of July 22 that they are cash-strapped having not received their full 2019/20 (that is last fiscal year) budget allocation.

There are also complaints about “physical Senate summons” (that, is, could governors please be summoned on Zoom?), a misbehaving and non-compliant political class, human and physical traffic delays at border points and fears about decimated public services on account of the outbreak.

This all sounds pretty boring and bureaucratic. It is.

You can be sure that neither side will want to have a chat about the usefulness of the much-touted Medical Equipment Scheme (or those containers) in offering capacity for Covid-19 responses.

Therein lies the rub. Kenya created institutions, like the Summit, for strategic dialogue, not to fix every emergency (even Covid-19) or exchange words and letters at jamborees like the Devolution Conference.

Here’s an example of dialogue where I’d love to be a fly on the wall. Counties: “Why is national government spending as much on the military (Sh115 billion) as it is on healthcare (Sh114 billion)?” To which national government responds, “What are counties spending around Sh120 billion in devolved health care on?” These are current 2020/21 budget year numbers. Imagine the dialogue right there!

Where am I going with this? Simple, apart from reviving devolution’s importance, Covid-19 has brought to life the constitution’s principles around cooperative government at the highest levels, like the Summit. Imagine, then, if Monday’s meeting quickly dispensed with the Covid-19 logistical issues, and then turned to the national-county dialogue that Kenya needs.

First, strategy and action to internally build the readjusted/realigned 90 percent Covid-19 economy, not the current wild goose chase for a donor-driven post-Covid economic recovery plan. Second, rather than lamenting about how Covid-19 has closed down government, what about strategy and action to reimagine and reengineer public service delivery, rationalise government’s cost base and begin to build the fiscal consolidation we badly need? Hell, what’s the role of regional economic blocs in a “hub and spoke” strategy, beyond Nairobi, to deal with a pandemic that’s turning endemic?

Here’s the unwritten question for Monday’s meeting. Was the Summit created for strategic dialogue, or fire fighting? That’s the only way to stop fretting over the daily numbers, lockdown and all the stuff that’s keeping us awake over a virus and disease that we still haven’t figured out, but need to live with.

Strategy anyone?

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