Even at the best of times, Kenyan governments have not shown themselves to be paragons of efficiency. But these are hardly the best of times. In fact, they may very well be the worst — and President Uhuru Kenyatta’s government is living up to the pattern.
When the coronavirus officially arrived in Kenya in mid-March, the government’s initial response was to close all ports of entry and institute a partial lockdown. It closed schools and later instituted a dusk-to-dawn curfew and mandatory quarantines; required people to wear masks in public and to work from home when possible; restricted travel to and from four counties, including the capital Nairobi; and shuttered restaurants and bars. Kenya looked to be off the blocks early. But was it too early?
The lockdown was instituted as coronavirus numbers were in the single digits, and for a time, it seemed to be working. Predictions of 10,000 infections by the end of April turned out to be overblown, with the government claiming credit for preventing them. But with weeks of economic standstill taking a toll and as even wealthier residents began to hawk vegetables by the roadside, it was clear that the economy had to be reopened. The government begun a phased reopening in the final week of April, but by then, there were already indications that infections were ticking up.
On July 6, Kenyatta scrapped internal travel restrictions and announced that international flights would resume starting Aug. 1. Less than a week later, infections had crossed the 10,000 mark and in another two weeks stood at just over 15,000. These numbers may not be large when compared to the situation in countries such as the United States, but the rate at which they are increasing cause for concern. It took the country 15 weeks to register its first 5,000 cases. It has taken just another four weeks since to get to 15,000 — and many experts believe Kenya is undercounting cases because the number of tests carried out is still woefully low.
As its strategy appears to be falling apart — with hospitals beds reportedly full and patients being turned away; badly needed medical equipment such as ventilators going missing, just as tales of intensive-care beds being installed in governors’ mansions emerge; and cash meant to cushion the economy against coronavirus-related shocks reportedly being stashed away in private accounts — the government’s priority has apparently been to cover itself.
“Personal Responsibility” is the mantra that has been taken up by public officials from the president down. It places the burden of responsibility for the disease on the public and not the state. Throughout the crisis, the government has sought to paint Kenyans as the villains, blaming the rise in infections on their “indiscipline.” Of course, this conveniently ignores the fact that the guidelines issued by authorities often took little account of Kenyans’ actual circumstances. Further, the brutality with which they were enforced and the terrible conditions those taken into mandatory quarantine had to endure did little to reassure them that the state was sincere. Reports of missing health equipment and recovery funds have done little to bridge the credibility gap.
So what happens now? The country feels as though it is standing on the edge of a cataclysm and yet, at this crucial moment, the government is conspicuous by its absence. The last plan to be made public covered February to April and was seemingly abandoned after the country’s first case was registered in March.
That plan articulated a worst-case scenario that sounds pretty much like what is happening today, with unexplained respiratory illnesses, high person-to-person transmission and an overwhelmed health-care system. It goes on to recommend that in such a scenario, the president would declare a national disaster. That is yet to happen.
More people are speaking of the government abandoning Kenyans at their hour of greatest need, and it is breeding a dangerous fatalism. “Where will I get time to sanitise a client? At whose expense? How can I keep social distance? I will die of hunger if I remain at home. If coronavirus will kill me as I eke out a living, so be it!” a commercial sex worker told the Daily Nation.
Yet this is the time for citizens to demand more of their government, not shrug their shoulders at it or retreat into private solutions. Private actions are not a panacea for bad public policy. Washing hands, keeping social distance and staying at home are all necessary but not sufficient. The most important thing Kenyans can do to protect themselves is to demand that the state do the job they pay it to do. And that begins with asking for a plan.
Patrick Gathara is a strategic communications consultant, writer and award-winning political cartoonist in Kenya.