Ideas & Debate

Questions to ponder on reopening the economy

face masks
Production of face masks used in the fight against coronavirus. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

On Wednesday night’s JKL television show, Makueni Governor Kibutha Kibwana who says he wants to be President of Kenya offered two important insights in response to questioning on what he would have done differently — or more — in relation to Kenya’s Covid-19 response.

First, based on conversations with his fellow governors, it doesn’t seem quite right that we’re already thinking about “post-Covid” recovery, instead of a more holistic mitigation of its current (and ongoing into the foreseeable future) impact on lives, livelihoods and living. As an aside, a couple of counties are already cobbling together “post-Covid economic recovery strategies”. Recall too, that the Budget Statement in June also spoke to “ongoing, consultative work’ to prepare a similar national strategy.

Let’s say this again. Coronavirus will be here for a while; a vaccine will take a while too. It isn’t wise to plan for the end of a crisis that has no end in sight. Especially now, when Kenya’s test positivity rate (proportion of tests (daily or as a moving daily average) turning positive) is rising rapidly as community transmission spreads through counties.

Second, the Governor’s own mitigation response beyond health; 50,000 people trained to advise, counsel, and support the county’s 250,000 households while understanding and meeting, where possible, urgent household needs. Basically, moving beyond inanimate hospital beds and equipment to real people. Again, it’s not about waiting for rain to stop, but working through how to ride the storm. It would be great to hear about how our other counties are “mitigating” for the people.

Even accepting Covid-19 as a “learning by doing” experience across the globe, we might have got here earlier. Let’s offer this as a contextual prelude to the growing demands to “reopen the economy” on July 6, a subject I covered last week. We also know that, last week, counties (taken as a sum for arguments sake, though they are heterogeneous) were at less than 25 percent on health preparedness.


President Uhuru Kenyatta then stated “county readiness to respond to new cases will largely determine our national readiness to re-open the country as a whole…because the nation is the total of all the 47 counties. If the counties have met the necessary thresholds, then the nation will be ready to re-open”.

For an administration that has seemed hellbent on financially starving counties and undermining devolution, while national government consumes our tax base and more, this was richly ironic. At least an initial “only national government” response is now a “whole of government” response 90 days later. In the United States, the Trump Administration’s language has been far more cunning, to wit; “recovery and response efforts are locally executed, state managed and federally supported”.

This week, we’ve heard more calls for and against “reopening”. The health people are warning us not to. The education chaps are neither here nor there. Governors say they’re now ready for “phased and gradual”. Business and private sector are itching to get back to the “old normal” of “business as usual”. Some op-eds have called for careful reopening “for the sake of the economy (meaning livelihoods)”.

Here are a couple of quick “readiness” thoughts to reflect on before, and after, July 6.

First, are we, and counties, ready for the “whole of society” approach implied by Makueni, beyond ICU beds, PPE, testing kits, ventilators and the like? In other words, given the frequency of breaches we have observed that were occasioned by a sudden lockdown, what’s the incentive for Kenyans to respect and practice an extended period of “non-lockdown” hygiene, face mask-wearing and social distancing? Or differently, what’s the level of county preparedness to provide extensive economic mitigation and psychosocial support to Kenyans, especially those in vulnerable or marginalized groups?

Second, how ready is business for a “new normal”? Again, around the questions of hygiene and social distancing? This isn’t about government enforcement, but rather, as we’ve observed in other countries that have opened up, has business adjusted, prepared and innovated for this moment, or is it “business as usual” with less customer volume in what the Economist magazine calls “the 90 per cent economy”? Remember, we can’t all WFH (work from home), so how has business reengineered for this moment?

Here’s the bottom line. Now that we’ve figured the Covid-19 battle must be “locally executed, county managed and nationally supported”, how do we also make it “Kenyan-owned” and as much about the governed as the government? Food for thought as we hold our collective breath for that July 6 address.