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Ideas & Debate

What’s required for Kenya’s new normal under Covid-19

The real tragedy of Monday’s “reopening of the economy” is that it seems not to reflect on the quiet time we have had, and the moment we now have to reimagine and reshape Kenya.
The real tragedy of Monday’s “reopening of the economy” is that it seems not to reflect on the quiet time we have had, and the moment we now have to reimagine and reshape Kenya. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

The partial lockdown has been lifted in Nairobi, Mombasa and Mandera, although the nationwide dusk to dawn curfew remains. Church is back, so there’s no further need to summon church leaders to personal residences. Bars, politics and other socials remain closed for now. This we all learnt on July 6.

The next day, we were advised about a “lost academic year”; 2020 has been deleted from the school calendar, which now resumes in 2021. July 7 was also our 30th remembrance of “Saba Saba” Day, a particular significant milestone in the push for Kenya’s Second Liberation. Our leaders have forgotten. Our love of “colonial-like status quo” is designed not to learn from history, but to repeat its errors.

Which is why, on the self-same July 7 liberation day, we were informed that Government deemed it fit to return to “business as usual” with a Zoom meeting in which President Uhuru Kenyatta outlined government development priorities for the 2020/21 fiscal year, emphasized the completion of projects and programmes as a performance metric for ministers and their assorted secretaries, talked big about “Build Kenya, Buy Kenya” and the settlement of pending bills, and, for the umpteenth time, warned officials against corruption and malfeasance. Like Covid-19 never happened, or isn’t happening.

Consider this further. Pending bills (in many cases for unnecessary, or non-priority work) are a first charge on Ministerial Budgets (as is the bloated payroll). The conflation of projects and programmes consistently reflects an illogical government ignorance that projects must be located in programmes (they are not equal); SGR and Galana-Kulalu exemplify the disastrous exceptions to this rule.

The real tragedy of Monday’s “reopening of the economy” is that it seems not to reflect on the quiet time we have had, and the moment we now have to reimagine and reshape Kenya. Fellow columnist Mike Eldon brilliantly captured our need for a new vision in his Thursday July 9 piece, concluding with an invitation for some thoughts on a “New Kenya”.

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While some felt that the President threw Kenyans “under the bus” with his “you’re on your own” Monday address, one imagines he’s also had a Covid-19 epiphany about real people, not inanimate toys we can’t eat, or tools that won’t teach or treat us without human intervention. Put differently, it isn’t just Covid-19, but Kenya that needs a more human “whole of society” view of the future.

Knowing we’re not getting back to normal any time this year, what should we be thinking about in terms of a “New Kenya for the People”? And please, not that BBI aka “Big Baron Interests”. Allow me to revert to my time-worn “household/family” framework – what do Kenyan families want?

First, food. Kenya now has more pages of written paper on agricultural strategy than the sacks of maize in National Cereals and Produce Board (NCPB) stores. Agriculture is a county function that is plagued by national interference. How do we get everyone who’s escaped Nairobi following the “reopening” to get back to farming? Or everyone remaining in Nairobi (and other urban places) to embrace “urban agro”? How do we make livestock clean, competitive and exportable? Think mindset change: not the right to be fed (a subsistence attitude) to the right to food (a market attitude); and then the ability to make money from food.

Second, basic rights. Take these four from Article 43. Education. Health. Shelter. Water and Sanitation. Where’s the “whole of society” vision on education (life skills, skills for life, knowledge itself) beyond buildings and BOMs, that doesn’t panic us when, like now, schools are closed for the rest of the year?

Remember Bill Gates taking about “banking without banks”? Well, what about health without hospitals, plus e-Health and tele-medicine? Or next-gen housing as a WFH (work from home) space? What of integrated water and sanitation in a recycling perspective?

Mindset change again: Not the right to be educated, but to an education. Not the right to be healthy, but to health as a function of lifestyles and living conditions, like water and sanitation. Not simply in Nairobi or Mombasa, but everywhere. Our shortcut mentality has corrupted us towards a scramble for equal outcomes for a few in certain areas, rather than equal opportunity for all, everywhere.

Third, access to assets and income opportunities. This is where we don’t get it. Opportunities lie in counties, but only a few have focused on their economic sectors (trade, tourism, industry, including agro-processing), having prioritized health and roads. Everyone’s building jua kali, shoe shiner and boda boda sheds, but where are our R&D and innovation centres in counties or regional blocs? Where are people innovating on product or service design, offering or customer experiences?

Finally, participatory governance, and security and safety at a family level. How can we better offer citizen voice outside elections, and what is the role of the state in keeping us safe and secure in public places and private spaces? How do we improve human security conditions at the family level?

Many questions, and this is the moment to ask them. BBI was supposed to create our new normal. It hasn’t. Maybe Covid-19 might, if we think of Monday’s “reopening” as the beginning of the future.

After all, “it’s the people, stupid!”

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