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Mr President, think of those whose lives hang on alcohol

By Daisy Maritim | August 9th 2020 at 12:00:00 GMT +0300

Dear Mr President,

Once again, allow me to skip the greetings and begin with a quote from a man who was as preoccupied with the economy as you are: “When the facts change, I change my mind.” This was John Maynard Keynes acknowledging that as an expert, even his own thoughts, were subject to alteration.     

Your Excellency, this time my appeal is for a reversal of your order on the sale of alcohol in restaurants. Fortunately, I can make the appeal based on two of your own pronouncements in the past month.

The first pronouncement is that of July 6. You said this pandemic is a health crisis, but it is also an economic crisis at the core. In saying this we understood that your priority is not only to keep Kenyans alive but to keep their livelihoods alive as well.

But this directive on alcohol has jeopardised these very livelihoods more than it is protecting lives.

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Mr President, as you know, Kenyans are a peculiar people. The difference between holding a small business session at a restaurant or not, could be a 350ml can of beer. The difference between a family going to a restaurant for dinner or not, could be a singular bottle of wine. The difference between friends having a lunchtime session at a café or not, is a few bottles of cider.

But these small differences, spread in multiples across the country translate into an avalanche of restaurant shut downs.

And of course Your Excellency, these are middle-class problems. But the reality is that mild middle-class problems cascade into more life-altering problems as you go down the economic scale.

In addition to the hundreds of entrepreneurs who have put their blood and sweat into creating eateries around the country, there is an army of waitstaff, cleaners and cooks whose livelihoods hang on that directive. Not to mention the thousands of dependents supported by these people.

Just a drink accompanying a meal is the difference between subsistence and destitution for many Kenyans.

Your Excellency, going forward, it is not just Kenyans who patronise the restaurants that will make the difference. The skies are slowly opening up, and the government is encouraging tourists to visit. Domestic tourism is slowly rising.

People from home and around the world who could previously not afford an exotic holiday are seeing the opportunity in this coronavirus crisis, and taking advantage of lower rates.

But even though the pandemic provides a cheap opportunity to see the world, many will not look forward to come to Diani to have a Fanta, instead of a tropical cocktail by the beach.

They will go to Zanzibar instead. Many who would prefer to have a White Cap lager for a sundowner as they view Mt Kenya will go to see Mt Kilimanjaro instead.

Drinking while holed up in a hotel room is nobody’s idea of an ideal holiday, pandemic or not.

The second pronouncement is that of July 27. We heard you telling the governors that the path you have chosen in responding to the pandemic is a ‘living path’ that you will correct as it unfolds. And that where there are variations or challenges, you would engage in ‘course-correction’ until you get the best working formula.

We call you to examine this one decision, because its consequences will be in conflict with your intentions for the economy.

Mr President, yes Kenyans love their drink, and you rightly pointed out in another one of your addresses that alcohol is a driver of recklessness. But Your Excellency, it is also a driver of business. In all honesty, this recklessness can even happen in some churches, where some pastors are drunk with the need to maximise on offering amid the pandemic.

This appeal is not premised on the simple but widespread business model of drinks accompanying a meal. The directive to shut the bars is understandable. In a drinking spree, the first things to be thrown out the window are inhibitions and social distancing.

While the bar directive also comes with economic and livelihood losses, restaurants need not suffer the same fate; the economy need not suffer a double loss. 

Mr President, even your worst detractors will grudgingly admit that you have demonstrated true leadership during this crisis. No other president has been called to make decisions this rapidly, with such far-reaching consequences and in such grave circumstances. No other president in our history has needed to think of the delicate balance between life and livelihood so urgently.

And sir, that is why on this one thing, you can afford a reversal on a presidential directive.

Finally, perhaps you could place the responsibility on the restaurant owners to regulate alcohol consumption in their own premises, and adhere to government Covid-19 protocols. Just as you have been consulting the research scientists, doctors and public practitioners for counsel, also seek a solution from the restaurateurs and leaders in the hospitality sector on how you can save livelihoods in their industry.

Let me end with Keynes complete quote: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”

– The writer is a PhD candidate in political economy at SMC University. [email protected]

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