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Covid-19 a wake-up call for government

COMMENTARY
By Lempaa Suyianka | December 29th 2020

A medical staff attends to a Covid-19 patient at a special ward at Arwyp Medical Centre, as South Africa is about the reach a milestone of 1 million infections, in Kempton Park, South Africa, December 25, 2020. [Reuters]

Covid-19 has exposed societies differently. But needless to say, countries with weak medical and education infrastructure have been exposed more. This exposure should act as a reality check for those charged with governance and prompt them to improve service delivery.

Fourteenth Century catastrophes such as the bubonic plague had a huge effect on society. They shaped the economic and political institutions of Western and Eastern Europe, and helped to distinguish poverty from prosperity.

The impact of Black Death on institutions in the east and west of Europe is a classic example. In England – just like all countries hit by the plague – half of the population was wiped out. The demand for slaves, arising from the death of so many of them, created some consciousness that they were valuable after all. This led to medieval European societies to transform socially, economically and politically.

When the bubonic plague hit, Western and Eastern Europe had similar political and economic institutions. However, Western Europe was more eager to use the lessons learnt from the plague to reform their institutions. Eastern Europe did not.

Therefore by the 1600s, the two were completely different. Western Europe had become a more inclusive and boasted of a booming market economy whereas Eastern Europe remained largely an extractive economy. Although this is just one critical juncture in history, it shows how much one catastrophe can shift economic or political balance.

Bubonic plague

When the Black Plague hit, there was a shortage of labour. This led to peasants demanding less fines and less unpaid labour. The feudal system started to crash as peasants began to free themselves. In order for the government to try to regain power, the Statute of Labourers was passed but ended up being unsuccessful as the peasants continued to revolt. Thus people take advantage of a pandemic to free themselves from slavery and to change for the better.

In Kenya, public institutions that have been worst hit by Covid-19 are education and health sectors. The education sector has been so affected that no one knows when things will return to normal. The reason for this sorry state of affairs is obvious. Over the years, we have neglected public institutions, especially those that provide crucial services to citizens.

This is despite the fact that it is the citizens who fund these institutions through taxes. Across the country, including in urban centres, there are many dilapidated public primary schools, some whose roofs and walls have never been repainted ever since they were built in 1960s and 1970s.

When the Kibaki government declared primary education free in 2003, there was no corresponding improvement in infrastructure, recruitment of teachers and support staff to cope with increasing number of pupils.

More classes

This is where the rain started to beat public primary education in Kenya.

The same tragedy is about to befall secondary schools. When the government brags that it wants 100 per cent transition from primary to secondary school without building more classes, laboratories, dormitories and other infrastructure, this marks the beginning of the end of public secondary schools, as we know them.

The government knows that primary school enrolment is higher than that of secondary schools because primary schools are more than secondary schools. Therefore, talking about 100 per cent transition is like believing that a big river can join a smaller one without busting the latter's banks!

As a result, some people will now see an opportunity to invest in the provision of secondary education and exploit the public!

Chinua Achebe caricatures the story of Africans as that of looking for private solutions to public problems. If the public transport is in shambles, we buy private cars. If there is no water, we people dig private boreholes. If there is no security, we hire private security. If the public healthcare is dysfunctional, we look for private doctors and hospitals.

To avoid going that direction full throttle, the government should assess the disparities between private and public schools and strive to improve the latter. It should also address the shameful differences between public healthcare system and the private healthcare system.

Most of the middle class in Kenya attended public primary schools between 1963 and 2000. However, today they cannot send their children to public schools, loathe using public transport and do not go to public hospitals. The government should ask itself why they do that.

Mr Lempaa is a human rights advocate at Katiba Institute

Covid 19 Time Series

 

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