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Ideas & Debate

Tough decisions for Kenya in next 10 days

Coronavirus
Coronavirus COVID-19 medical test vaccine research and development concept. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

It was said that Covid-19 silenced Kenya’s March 2018 “handshake” and its ensuing Building Bridges to Unity Initiative (BBI). That, while “nobody can stop reggae”, a little “dudu” called Coronavirus can. That the pandemic offered a greater chance to “remake Kenya” than any BBI rally, or referendum, ever could. Hope springs eternal; for every way in which this pandemic impacts lives, livelihoods and living, there is an equal and opposite search for innovative answers and solutions for the future.

Great minds tell us that “we are all faced with a series of great opportunities brilliantly disguised as impossible solutions”; that “life is 10 percent what happens, and 90 percent how you react to it”.

Simply, this is our “conceptual” moment. Yet, the context looks different. Diversionary and divisive politics is back to centre stage with our real-life movie rendition of “The Purge” across political parties. In many conversations I have, the fear is that Kenya’s “post-Covid’ era (if ever there is one) will take us back to our zero-sum “politics of underdevelopment”. This is a sobering, and frightening, thought.

But that’s not the only thought for this second successive long weekend. Glance across to Treasury and its endless “Casino Royale” movie. Tax collections were Sh200 billion off target by end-March (basically, before curfew and lockdown), think another Sh100 billion - Sh150 billion shortfall by June. To our Sh6.4 trillion debt burden at the end of March, we’ve just added almost Sh200 billion from the IMF and World Bank, with press speculation that another Sh100 billion from the European Union is forthcoming. This is all before we get to the “business as usual” 2020/21 budget proposals currently sitting in Parliament.

Which brings us to that Sh37 billion, sorry, Sh54 billion “8-point Economic Stimulus package” subsequently renamed the “2nd Economic Stimulus package” after some senior mandarin recalled the earlier stimulus of tax reliefs and reductions (for people and companies with falling or zero incomes), allocations to the vulnerable (often diverted or misappropriated) and pending bill payments (cash, not income).

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If the first stimulus was a “ghost” stimulus, this second one is typically “transactional” (say, which and whose hotels, SMEs and manufacturers will benefit from this latest largesse?).

Neither stimulus “remakes” Kenya, yet (let’s see how far the SME loan guarantee goes, and how long it stays). It is difficult to understand why official policy thinking ignores my favourite bugbear, public spending effectiveness (say, an opportunity to reskill public servants in a low-activity moment). Or long-held proposals about business and individual “lifelines”, “safety ropes” and “safety nets” beyond existing programmes. Then “Casino Royale” tells us the stimulus, plus the super-allocation to Nairobi Metropolitan Services, will be paid for by “budget realignment, donor aid and parastatal surpluses”.

Yet, the matter on most Kenyans’ minds is when the economy will be reopened, if we accept that it was actually closed. In our usual “kati kati” (middle ground) modus operandi, we seem to have done “half and half”, between Tanzania-style “laissez-faire” and Uganda-style “lockdown”. Further, reopening means different things in different places. Markets closed in many parts in the west of Kenya, but remained open in our central and eastern parts. Ditto for other social and cultural activities.

Today, Covid-19 is prevalent in 29 counties (at the time of writing) with its peak expected in August or September. Floods, mudslides and landslides have killed 285 and affected more than 800,000 people in just over a month, across 33 counties, but we are promised it ends by June. By which time (July) the next swarm of desert locusts rocks in; 28 counties and three million people at risk. Let’s use this as a quiet “back story” to the question of reopening the economy when things look dim for July, August and September.

In the coming 10 days, President Uhuru Kenyatta is expected to address the nation on this question. He must reflect on how the curfew and lockdown helped in strengthening health care facilities, and building large scale testing, tracing, treatment and isolation capacity. He must consider the unintended consequences of a Covid-19 focus on the health care system, and wider economy. He must think through how we get to better and safer social distancing in a more open environment – for schools, public transport, social and entertainment places and business, especially services. Think cost-benefit.

Mostly, he has a chance to translate the current “spray and pray” approach into a uniquely Kenyan “remake” (not just recovery) that recognizes a trilemma (not dilemma) around lives (health, food, water and the other basics), livelihoods (opportunity, resilience and sustainability) and (least mentioned) living (the reshaping of society and our social capital in a post-Covid era). Think, cost-benefit for the people. Forget “The Purge” and “Casino Royale”, let’s delve into this “remaking Kenya” perspective next week.

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