To beat Covid-19, we must learn from China
By Leonard Khafafa
| Mar 18th 2020 | 4 min read
When the Titanic, billed as the ship that even God himself couldn’t sink struck an iceberg, everyone on board was unmoved. The resident band in the first-class lounge played on without skipping a beat. The crew and passengers, assured of the indestructibility of the vessel, carried on as if nothing had happened. Until the ship began to sink inexorably; then the “keep calm and carry on” mask of British stoicism slid off and pandemonium ensued.
The Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) of President Uhuru Kenyatta and ODM leader Raila Odinga is reminiscent of the Titanic. It had been touted as a movement for change that could not be stopped. Borrowing from murdered South African musician Lucky Dube’s protest song, its refrain was, “nobody can stop reggae.”
But the novel coronavirus (Covid-19) is to the BBI what the iceberg was to the Titanic. Just like that, reggae has stopped. The beat that was to go on endlessly has come to a halt. And rightly so because focus must now shift to the coronavirus, which poses an existential threat not only to Kenyans, but to the rest of the world.
After the detection of three cases of the disease in Nairobi, it is no longer an abstract occurrence in some distant country, but a very present reality in Kenya. To the credit of the government, Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe has been forthright in his daily briefings. He has outlined a course of action without fudging on the seriousness of the issue. The decision to all but lock down the country is clearly in the best interests of the health of citizens.
However, there is a general feeling that the government ought to have been better prepared. After all, it had advance warning of more than 90 days from the time the pandemic broke out in China. It was always a question of when and not if, the contagion would land on Kenyan soil. As much as both national and county governments are racing against time to set up isolation facilities for patients of the pandemic, these may be inadequate in the event that a flare-up akin to that of China or Italy occurs. Further, nursing staff at one of these facilities in Nairobi have decried the lack of training and inadequate protective gear needed for handling patients.
Greater prescience is needed in determining the next course of action. To paraphrase former prime minister of the United Kingdom Benjamin Disraeli, it is better to hope for the best while planning for the worst. Obviously, containment is the most preferred scenario where the virus is stopped from proliferating beyond the three cases discovered in Nairobi.
China, where it all started, has been very effective in containing the virus. For a country with over a billion people, the loss of 3,000, whilst regrettable, points to the relative success of government efforts. The rate of new infections has trickled to near zero and the country is beginning to jump-start its production lines. But how has this been possible?
China has been successful because it has a different cultural and structural set-up from the West. In an emergency, the decisional process is unencumbered by layers of bureaucracy and the government has powers to enforce its measures from the top, down. Once a decision was arrived at, Wuhan city, the epicentre of the coronavirus was put under lockdown for weeks on end. The result is that China is now safer than most countries of the West.
Replicating the Chinese model requires citizens to trust their governments, a rarity in Africa. Even here in Kenya, government is considered by many to be predatory, where the bureaucracies in official stations are designed to ensure a shakedown and not to facilitate services. Trust is earned. To merit it, African leaders must rise above the thinking of those whose solutions are to build more mortuaries for victims of the coronavirus, this in lieu of efforts to save lives.
For starters, a cross-conversation is needed that entails bringing together various segments of society; the business community, religious, other authority figures and government. A lockdown decision emanating from these would have greater authenticity and acceptability than a mere talk-down from government functionaries. The conversation could be further expanded to include post-coronavirus recovery for life must go on after the crisis. Incentives like suspended tax collections and substantial reductions in interest-rates should be considered. Unlike the Titanic, Covid-19 will not leave Kenya unsalvageable!
Mr Khafafa is a public policy analyst
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