Kenyans woke up to new levels of anxiety on June 6, the day President Kenyatta was expected to address the nation on the Covid-19 situation.
Social media was awash with messages and creative memes exhorting the President to ease the restrictions aimed at cutting community transmissions of the virus.
When the Head of State finally took to the rostrum, tension soared. Every word was weighed. Although admitting that he, too, would have loved to open up the country the reality demanded otherwise.
Infections and deaths were increasing. As more counties came under the grip of the virus, the devolved entities were found to be ill equipped to respond.
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Siaya County, for instance, only had 10 isolation beds, against the expected number of 300. Kenya was therefore not in a position to return to normalcy; despite the economic tall that the restrictions had caused.
One thing, however, stood out during the President’s address. He was presenting his decisions with facts and numbers. He was coherent, convincing and pragmatic. He kept mentioning the advice by experts on why continued restrictions was the best for the country, at least for the moment.
It was indeed inspiring to see the President elevate the position of the academy in national crisis management. Experts drawn from schools of medicine at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology and the University of Nairobi; as well as the Kenya Medical Research Institute were finally playing the critical role of injecting scientific knowledge in Kenya’s fight against the pandemic.
Countries that have made progress in meeting the socio-economic needs of their populations, have leveraged their research institutions and experts.
Indeed, as the country grappled with the pandemic, many voices questioned the role of universities. Local experts even became subjects of ridicule – with some people saying they were holed up like other Kenyans instead of searching for solutions in their laboratories.
The decision by the President to seek answers from universities was therefore wise and should be part and parcel of his efforts to find sustainable solutions to other challenges facing the country.
Kenya has made commitments to transition into a knowledge-based economy; something that cannot materialize until knowledge become our guiding light and fallback.
Even more enlivening is the fact that our universities have equally stepped up efforts to locally produce the essential commodities need in the fight against the pandemic.
JKUAT in partnership with the African Union-led Pan African University Institute for Basic Sciences, Technology and Innovation, recently unveiled portable ventilators, solar-powered handwashing machines and an application that can aid in contact tracing and case management of Covid-19 patients.
Beyond the academy, the country has also witnessed the upsurge in industrial activity of anti-Covid-19 items. From the Kitui firm that has been repositioned to produce face masks to a number of establishments currently churning out the much needed personal protective clothing – Kenyans have proven their innovative knack.
At a time of increased protectionism across the globe, it is only prudent that Kenya encourages local capacity in diverse sectors. That call for increased investments in research and innovation.
While the Constitution demands that two percent of the Kenya’s Gross Domestic Product be invested in research; figures from the treasury indicates that the country spend only 0.8 per cent of the GDP on research. The pandemic has only revealed the heightened need to devote more funds to our universities and research institutions for better outcomes.
Also tied to the research and development enterprise is the need to strengthen the link between the academia and the industry. While varsities can innovate; they are not equipped to mass produce various innovations and technologies.
In the last three months, we have heard pleas by various innovators, looking for industry partners to help scale up their innovations. A progressive framework of engagement between universities and industry players that takes care of pertinent elements such as intellectual property protection should be expedited to as a way of moving the innovations across the ‘valley of death’.
The Covid-19 pandemic is not just a health challenge. Globally, it is rearranging political chessboard. A new world is largely expected to emerge from the rubbles of the virus.
Like all the afflicted countries, Kenya’s immediate task is to protect lives and save livelihoods. Going into the future, however, producing and using knowledge to cushion domestic populations from pandemics, vagaries of climate change, food insecurity, and even violent extremism will make the difference between successful countries and struggling ones.
The writer is a PhD student of international relations. Twitter: @Cavinceworld