Ideas & Debate
Improve public ownership for effective Covid response
Friday April 23 2021
By DENNIS KABAARA
- A week after our letter/memo, right before the IMF deal was formally approved, we moved into a third wave of infections, and new restrictions targeting five counties.
- It says much that Kenyans have responded badly to these restrictions.
- A combination of lived personal experience and blanket media coverage, by example on enforcement, rather than enabling, actions, has cultured the view that we are on our own.
In our March 19 request to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), it is officially stated that “Kenya moved quickly to contain the spread of Covid-19 and ramp up the capacity of its health system” to the effect that “containment measures were eased as health sector capacity was raised”.
The context underpinning our new IMF programme is a first pandemic wave from March 2020, and a second around November 2020.
A week after our letter/memo, right before the IMF deal was formally approved, we moved into a third wave of infections, and new restrictions targeting five counties that account for 3/8ths of the economy.
It says much that Kenyans have responded badly to these restrictions. A combination of lived personal experience and blanket media coverage, by example on enforcement, rather than enabling, actions, has cultured the view that we are on our own. Beyond great explanations and clarifications from our excellent doctors and medics, the real pandemic looks to many like official graft, sloth and entropy.
Here’s an experiential view which I paraphrase from a Kenyan on Twitter: “Science-based lockdowns prevent spread of the virus; Security-based lockdowns stop movement of the people”. Put differently, esoteric lifestyle policy for the elite versus the precarious practice of daily living for the “little people”.
The simple answer should be to address the contradictory disconnect between policy intent and public acceptance, since policy should be about the people. Today, I will avoid my usual trope about lives, livelihoods and living, and instead recall the early observation by Singapore’s Foreign Minister that the pandemic would test countries along three dimensions.
First, health systems. That we’ve built capacity during this period cannot be gainsaid, but was this about tenders or systemic change? Witness capacity gaps that have suddenly emerged with this third wave – ICU beds, ventilators, oxygen among others. Observe the comment this week by the Council of Governors that we’re short on testing material, implying further that contact tracing has all but collapsed. Where’s the confidence-building health capacity that Kenyans seek?
Second, governance. Between the Auditor-General’s shocking findings on Kemsa and county government expenditures (over-commitment, lack of budget, procedural non-compliance and outright shady procurement), it’s fair to recall the President’s long-forgotten and roundly ignored promises around procurement transparency, disclosure, access to information, and ultimately, accountability.
Governance? We know, from speeches, about the National Security Council and the National Emergency Response Committee on Coronavirus. We are aware of the, now silent, private sector Sh2-plus billion Covid-19 Emergency Fund. What about the National Economic and Business Response, Security Response and Preparedness; or County Coordination and Food Supply Working Groups? Hey, while we’re at it, where did the Committee on ICT disappear to? Mostly, where’s their influence on our response, because outside of health actions, it all seems reactive, ad-hoc and free-wheeling.
Third, social capital – the shared values and consensus that gets us all reading from the same page, facing the same direction and pursuing a shared, common purpose in response to pandemic. Here’s the part that’s really missing, so let’s think about it in terms of where we are today.
First, the virus isn’t gone, and Covid-19 has no cure. The public health WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) imperative is still with us, as is the need for social distancing. The medical imperative (testing, tracing, and subsequently treatment/care) remains, and needs more oxygen, literally and figuratively.
Second, the vaccine question, having regard to supply availability and cost accessibility challenges. Although vaccine doesn’t mean cure, it signifies prevention from the worst, as the doctors remind us.
Two phrases typify today’s vaccine vocabulary.
First, vaccines don’t save lives, vaccinations do. As Africa CDC Director, John Nkengasong recently observed, this is the time for aggressive, not passive, vaccination strategy. Today Kenya is at less than two per cent; how do we get to 60 per cent herd immunity before our national IDs expire in December?
Second, nobody is safe until everybody is safe. In this Dr Nkengasong points us to an important emerging worry for Africa, and Kenya – vaccine passports. If the North is done with its vaccination by the end of 2021, Covid-19 vaccination certificates (or apps) are the next logical step, akin to our current yellow fever certificates. What would this mean for Kenyans and Kenya’s trade and economic prospects?
This isn’t simply an outward-facing challenge. On the local front, will employers now demand Covid-19 certification from employees? What of our access as customers to business, trade, entertainment, education or social facilities and centres? I can’t hear anyone asking these “pro-people” questions.
Today, we’re at less than two per cent on testing and vaccinations, nowhere on tracing and struggling on treatment. And we’ve got at least another five weeks of localised movement restrictions.
So, how do we proactively use this time window to innovatively envision a pro-people pandemic pathway, and then effectively communicate this and build more ownership and buy-in from Kenyans?
That’s the social capital question facing us. Before we get to another officious speech at the end of May. At which time, by the way, we have promised the IMF our audit of Covid-19 spending will be complete.
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