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Let’s learn from Covid as we reopen economy

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Workers at Revital Healthcare EPZ Ltd in Kilifi making surgical masks. FILE PHOTO | NMG

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Summary

  • We hear that the curve is beginning to flatten, and we’re anxious for a vaccine (I think!).
  • Everyone’s eager to get back to normal, with daily “reopening” appeals in the media to our leadership.
  • It is probably appropriate, then, that exactly six months after the first coronavirus case hit Kenya, a National Consultative Conference is planned for next Monday.

In a thought provoking article published this week, consultants McKinsey & Co suggest two ends to the Covid-19 pandemic. First, an epidemiological end when herd immunity is achieved in the population, most probably through a vaccine. At this point, public health emergency actions can be scaled down, if not completely ended.

Second, a “transition to a form of normalcy”. Not the old, but a “next” normal in which social and economic life can resume free of Covid-19 fear or danger. Interestingly, they see the second possibly happening before the first and, using the US as an example, visualise a base scenario of “normalcy by spring (Q1 of 2021); herd immunity by fall (Q3/4 of 2021)”. Each country scenario will differ, of course, based on a multiplicity of variables ranging from vaccine availability to public confidence.

Let’s segue this perspective into where we are today. We hear that the curve is beginning to flatten, and we’re anxious for a vaccine (I think!). Everyone’s eager to get back to normal, with daily “reopening” appeals in the media to our leadership.

It is probably appropriate, then, that exactly six months after the first coronavirus case hit Kenya, a National Consultative Conference is planned for next Monday.

As the President described it in his 11th Covid-19 address, this will be “an inclusive…conference to review our national and county Covid response together with all stakeholders (and) chart Kenya’s post-covid future”. “Yeah, yeah” you’re probably thinking – more “talk shopping” and “in this regard” speeches.

But no matter. The point here is we have an excellent moment to openly and honestly debate our public and private Covid-19 responses and distill lessons to more constructively define Kenya’s “next normal”. “Lessons” is the operative word in that last sentence; it’s the thing we just don’t do properly or well.

Let’s proceed on a brief journey that teases out a couple of illustrative lessons.

I’ll start on Planet Mars. If we’d treated constitutional implementation with greater fidelity, we would not have found ourselves in panic mode regarding the healthcare package that it demands (Article 43, anyone?) No, katiba didn’t predict Covid-19, but its implementation might have left us better prepared. How we can’t see that it isn’t just our basic law, but our overarching policy document is beyond me.

Now, back to Planet Kenya. Our health response has seemed mixed, but passable. On the one hand, early communication and quick action (even in panic) most likely reduced virus spread and saved lives.

In addition, national and county government coordination has looked constructive and impressive.

On the other, the treatment of doctors and other medical workers has been appalling, especially on the provision of PPE. Further, following initial action, the overall response strategy has seemed incoherent; and it’s not even clear where we are today with falling testing, zero tracing and empty quarantine space. Finally, to what extent has other health care (normal vaccination and treatment) been affected?

Jump across to the economic response. Tax cuts and the economic stimulus were clearly not enough. One is not even sure how far the stimulus has gone; numbers to date might help. The first lesson on the economic front is the astonishing fragility of the economy, especially the so-called formal economy and our much vaunted corporate sector. Yes, this has been a worldwide phenomenon, but one feels there is an underlying lack of resilience in our local private sector.

A contrary, and more far encouraging, second lesson is that we’re finding a new capacity to actually make things (manufacturing). The task ahead is to build this into something sustainable, and resilient.

Move over to social. I’m not sure we even had a social response, which is a lesson in itself. We closed schools and that was it, everyone left to their own devices. I only heard about mental health in speeches.

Increased domestic violence and teenage pregnancy were simply news items. Nobody has discussed the loneliness and isolation that social distancing has imposed, especially on senior citizens.

With no safety net, we saw local football stars operating boda boda (motorcycle taxis) to make ends meet.

Outside our bureaucratic corridors, there’s a real “you’re on your own” feel to our approach to the people. To repeat, Kenya lacks a “social vision” (which is different from a vision for the social sector).

There are other lessons. On digital, we can celebrate growth in e-commerce and online entertainment.

On the other hand, we witnessed the “digital divide” with education and on-line learning. On the whole process of restarting education, we’re still learning.

Like the healthcare package I referred to earlier, where’s the education package (buildings, classrooms, desks, teachers, administrators and workers, materials, students etc) needed for the “next normal”?

We also learnt that we can’t stop our official thievery and grand larceny. Enough said on this one.

Finally, all learning needs data. In this regard, the true test of our learning from Covid-19 will largely depend on the data we’ve collated, processed and translated into knowledge, and hopefully, wisdom.

Even as we resolve to reopen the economy next week and contemplate the end of Covid-19 in Kenya.