By Washington Osiro,
ONE BEGINS TO SEE THE impact of incompetence, corruption, and greed on the physical well-being of a society when its citizens are forced to confront a public health crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic. I will ignore the self-censorship embodied in the “Now is not the time to look back and criticize or apportion blame” exculpation. Instead, I will “strike while the iron is hot” because I don’t want to “let a ‘good’ crisis go to waste.” It is only through the reality of the pandemic-induced serious urgency of now that human suffering can be crystallized enough for some people to see how the ineptitude, dishonesty, and self-interest of their leaders impact their safety, security, and health.
The coronavirus disease – COVID-19 – has brought the world to its knees.
It has forced most citizens to “Shelter-in-Place” (SIP) except persons working in “Essential Services,” i.e., those working in occupations designated by the respective government as critical to the safety, security, and well-being of the citizenry. As defined, SIP assumes that one has a home they can seek shelter in so the homeless populations in cities such as San Francisco have been exempted from the edict even as respective city governments work with the hospitality (hotel) industry to find them housing – either free or at reduced rates.
Societies that have large-capacity structures and public spaces such as convention/conference centers, stadiums, parking structures, or open green space (NYC’s Central Park) have converted them into shelters for the homeless, emergency hospitals, distribution warehouses, or overflows to house patients who cannot be housed in the regular hospitals.
Kenya’s Nyumba Kumi (“Ten Homes”) Initiative rolled out shortly after the country’s forty-seven counties were each promised a stadium would have been a perfect system to organize the country’s population into cells to facilitate management of the pandemic – including keeping track of its potential victims. Similarly, the stadia would have been ideal for housing the infected, the homeless, and as storage and distribution points for the pandemic response-related supplies such as masks, gloves, PPEs, or first aid items for those sheltered in place, or those without the wherewithal to support themselves.
A hitherto unheard-of expression – Social Distancing – has forced the shutdown of schools. As a result of the closures, students are now staying home and accessing their lessons online via the internet. In response to this new learning reality, internet service providers (ISPs) such as AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, and others have stepped up and offered free internet access to families and students – to facilitate online lessons. This new normal assumed that students had computers and power – solar or electrical – to power the equipment. Utility companies such as Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), and San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) responded by suspending any actions stemming from non-payment of bills during the SIP period while schools offered laptops to any students who needed one. Both decisions were predicated on the reality that not all students have electricity or computers. From personal experience, I can confirm that my son’s transition from learning inside brick-and-mortar classrooms to learning in cyberspace was near-seamless. His online class and lessons were in place within days of the “Shelter-in-Place” order from California Governor Gavin Newsom. The tech-savvy iGen that my son and his classmates are were up and running barely affected by the COVID-19 virus that was roiling the global socio-economic environment.
Like the possibilities offered by the Nyumba Kumi and “Stadia-in-Each-County” initiatives, Kenyans would have been well-positioned to transition from learning in physical classrooms to learning in cyber-classrooms thanks to the “Laptop-for-Every-Child” initiative announced back in 2013. Unfortunately, like many initiatives announced by the current government, these two forward-looking ideas did not fully materialize to the point of being standard protocol NOW that they are truly needed – even though billions (KSh.3.2B for the laptops) were allocated towards their implementation.
America’s fifty states, like Kenya’s forty-seven counties, are a patchwork of devolved mini countries, each with “independent” governments. Unfortunately, these devolved political entities also have leaders (governors) whose professional competence and ideological approach to their jobs, let alone to a national crisis, are as varied and rarely align. So, just as America’s Red State/Blue State divide requires competent and selfless leadership and coordination at the federal level, especially when confronting emergencies that threaten the entire country, so does Kenya’s fight against a virus that does not respect county, ethnic, or socioeconomic boundaries. In America’s delayed hodgepodge response to COVID-19, one can see Kenya’s haphazard curfew and “facemask-in-two-days” edicts – complete with increasingly banal “COVID-19 Updates.”
Some states such as California have illustrated the force-multiplier made possible when public and private organizations step up to offer essential goods and services in response to a crisis. These many examples of neighbor-helping-neighbor and good corporate citizenship have been made easier among communities loosely organized along the Nyumba Kumi structure. Additionally, the noblesse oblige of the world’s and continent’s monied such as Dangote Group’s Aliko Dangote, Alibaba’s Jack Ma, Microsoft’s Bill Gates, and others has seen billions committed to helping those stricken by the virus. As I readied this article for publication, Narendra Raval, the chairman of the Devki Group, a Kenyan conglomerate that manufactures steel products, roofing sheets, and cement, committed KSh.100M “worth of oxygen to all government hospitals in the country” towards the fight against the virus. To my knowledge, none of Kenya’s many monied moguls have opened up their checkbooks to support efforts to fight COVID-19.
The COVID-19 pandemic has illustrated how lack of planning, ineptitude, misappropriation of public funds, and human greed can cause wide-scale suffering and death of people – including those who support persons entrusted with leadership during such crises. Its handling also illustrates that disasters such as the highly transmissible and contagious virus are inevitable; however, competent and proactive leadership can significantly mitigate their impact on a citizenry.