As I watched the news early last week, I was startled by a report on the increased vehicle traffic on Nairobi roads and people within the Central Business District. It hit me that Kenyans had gone back to normal life despite a warning from the Health Cabinet Secretary that if we treated the disease normally it would treat us abnormally. Why were Kenyans defying this advice?
The above question lingered in my mind for a few days. In the process, I reflected about what I had written at the start of the pandemic in Kenya and which was even the more relevant over 50 days later.
Within that period the government had done a commendable job to address the threat of the virus on the population. Were Kenyans demonstrating by their actions that the interventions had succeeded or were they passing a different message?
The answers to these questions were soon evident at the daily briefings by the Ministry of Health when the figures not only kept rising but Kenyans were further warned against behaving as if we were back to normal circumstances. The reality is that there is a mix of factors at play, which require both a change of strategy and more concerted explanations and engagements.
Granted, we are facing one of the greatest challenges of our lifetime, some have even equated it to a world-war three, only this time being fought without guns and other war artillery. Our collective skills have been tested to the limit. In the country, the entire government apparatus has been mobilised and continues to be coordinated, largely through the National Emergency Response Committee on Coronavirus.
However, the challenges of the last few days demonstrate that we may have paid more attention to the health response and the use of public order apparatus to fight the pandemic.
In a posting online on May 1st by the resident representative of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) for Eritrea, an argument was made that the success of Eritrea in containing the spread of the virus could be attributed to harnessing the social capital networks within the society by putting citizens and communities at the centre of the initiatives to address the pandemic. That this was in line with the African spirit of ubuntu.
Kenya must learn from this argument to recalibrate its actions. There had been a lot of talk about moving the response actions to the stage of mass testing. Some of the early media coverage had indicated that this should have been undertaken and even completed for the targeted 50,000 people by end of this past week.
However, citizens reactions to the tests was baffling to government. Very few people continued to turn up despite publicity, pleas, and threats from government. It took several days for the government to realise that the actual problem arose from the fear that if one tested positive they would require to be quarantined in a government facility but at their cost.
The second issue relates to stigma. A week or so ago, the Head of Public Service issued a circular directing those in the public service whose colleagues had finished their isolation or quarantine to accept them back and stop discriminating against them. While the call was spot on, the focus of the circular was largely a “public order” approach, a move that the government has deployed to great extent in the fight against the pandemic.
It is important to realise that the close to two months that the country has been in heightened activity to respond to the pandemic has resulted in society developing certain perceptions.
Contrary to the initial fear, some now even question the existence of the virus. While this is reckless since the evidence is all too clear across the world, the reality is that Kenyans may have been lulled into a false sense of security in the belief that we may have escaped the worst. In the circumstance, their initial willingness to obey all directives from government is weakening.
In its place, they are returning to their daily life situations, consisting of struggling to eke a living and address the myriad social and economic challenges they face.
Against this background, they question the sincerity of government action. Questions about how funds for the pandemic are being spent, concerns about the availability of some of the things, like masks and sanitiser, that were to be distributed for free and the general distrust of government is playing into the national psyche and hence citizens’ attitude.
In the premises, it is important that the Response Committee prioritise more engagement with citizens as opposed to talking at them and using the security apparatus to enforce its directives. Focusing on re-energising the commitment of citizens to the fight will bear more dividends than a medical and security only approach.