We must step up social protection and vaccinate the most vulnerable

After patiently waiting my turn for six months, I got vaccinated against Covid-19 this week. Viewed within the lens of income, social and labour inequalities in Kenya, this was late.

Most of my peers have been immunised twice and are eyeing a third jab, perhaps Johnson and Johnson or Pfizer, just to be safe. Now in year two, how has Covid-19 widened gaps across markets and societies?

This weekend, 126 organisations across Kenya and 29 other countries virtually organised the 2021 Festival to Fight Inequality. Describing the Festival as a digital shelter against an unequal world, they indict the world’s governments with failing to reverse state violence, essential services cutbacks and global vaccine apartheid.

With 3.1 million deaths, a global recession and 120 million people falling further into extreme poverty, their argument that Covid-19 has deepened wealth, race, gender, education and geographical inequalities is incontestable.

They also draw our attention to those whose income, wealth and social standing has increased. Some 325 US dollar billionaires have been created during the first year of the pandemic. Vaccine giants Moderna and BioNTech chief executives have become dollar billionaires.

Digital moguls like Amazon’s Jeff Bezos made Sh7.9 trillion on top of their estimated wealth of Sh19.2 trillion. With this income, Bezos could personally underwrite a global vaccination programme.

Having crunched the numbers, the Inequality Alliance, Oxfam, and the Progressive Millionaires Club are now recommending a one-off 99 per cent tax for all the billionaires to vaccinate everyone and protect workers who have lost jobs globally.

Kenya still ranks 143rd out of 189 nations with the lowest quality of life, health, and education standards according to the United Nations Human Development Index.

More encouragingly, the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics Inequality Trends 2020 Report notes income inequalities declined overall between 1990s and 2015. While the middle 50 per cent have seen their incomes rise, the bottom 10 per cent have seen theirs plummet. Inequalities remain higher in urban centres peaking in informal settlements and female headed households.

Left uninterrupted, Covid-19 will reverse these humble gains. Increasing unemployment and crashing small and medium enterprises are pushing millions to the informal sector. The bottom 10 per cent of the population remain largely unvaccinated or unable to pay Covid-19 tests and hospitalisation. Most of us are mentally exhausted with desperation, never-ending uncertainties and funerals.

As times get harder, more businesses and workers will go underground, and filing “NIL” taxes will be instinctual. As the elections approach, desperate citizens will choose ungovernability over the rule of law, handouts over enlightened leadership choices.

Powerful civil servants across our ministries will increasingly become distracted by their political ambition or survival in the next administration. Each month, the legislative window closes on possible laws that could make a significant difference. 

We must urgently restart a policy conversation now how to shield the very poor, kick start the economy and close the inequalities gaps. A new social and human rights contract around jobs, essential services and social protection must be mainstreamed across all 2022 party formations.

Citizens and State Officers must revitalise demands for an economic stimulus package, social protection and how to vaccinate especially those in our informal settlements and on the margins of our economies. If this doesn’t happen soon, we may lose this year also.

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