With a vaccine at least 18 months away, states are reacting by taking drastic steps to limit social gatherings such as church sermons, weddings and funerals, closing schools, and encouraging citizens to stop shaking hands, to stay indoors and to maintain “social distance” from each other. But the ways in which governments have communicated these directives and policies have fallen short. Kenya, with 25 confirmed cases so far, provides a sobering example.
From colonial times, the state has valued obedience over consent, preferring to issue orders rather than explain its decisions to the people. When tackling outbreaks of the bubonic plague early in the last century, the colonial administration resorted to harsh measures such as hut burnings, forced vaccinations and quarantines, which, not surprisingly, were resisted by much of the African population.
Today, the scenario is remarkably similar. Over the past week, the Kenyan government has used its daily briefings to announce increasingly stringent “directives,” bemoan a lack of cooperation and threaten dire punishments. Like its colonial predecessor, the government has offered little in the way of articulating its plans and thinking.
On several occasions, the cabinet secretary for health, Mutahi Kagwe, who chairs the National Emergency Response Committee, has said that the government’s response is guided by evidence and models it has developed for different scenarios, including “worst cases.” Yet, despite stressing the need for the population to prepare, he has not felt it necessary to share these scenarios and models. On the contrary, the government has even refused to comply with court directives to produce its plans for fighting the virus.
More concerning, the advice offered has been at times contradictory and at odds with the lived reality of many Kenyans, especially the urban poor. In the last week, people displaying covid-19 symptoms have been urged to head to health facilities by the president and to not go to hospitals by the Council of Governors.
Similarly, for the nearly two-thirds of the population in the capital Nairobi that is squeezed into cramped settlements that occupy just 6 percent of the city’s land, or the 8 in 10 workers providing manual labor in the informal sector, proposals such as social isolation and staying at home are completely impractical under the status quo. This is also true of the chaos and confusion that the latest directives have exacerbated in public transport. While there are clearly no easy answers, and any measures adopted would have undoubtedly caused difficulties, these problems could have been easily anticipated.
Although these might reflect the government’s own lack of preparedness for the global pandemic, they fit into a depressing pattern. In the course of the last seven years, whenever confronted by a crisis, the government sought to control the narrative rather than keep the public well-informed. In many cases, this has ended up confusing rather than clarifying the situation, such as during the 2013 terrorist attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
The Kenyan government was aided in this by a pliant and uncritical media establishment. Today, it is again reverting to type, arresting and charging those who challenge its presentation of the facts, especially on social media. And once again, the media has been happy to beat the government’s drum, regurgitating without question its declarations.
This time, however, the cost of replacing information with government spin could be high indeed. In Italy, contradictory signals from the government confused the populace and contributed to some not taking the pandemic seriously, with disastrous results. In the United States, some journalists and media scholars are suggesting not providing live coverage of President Trump’s press briefings because of his many untrue and misleading statements. In Kenya, the government’s poor communication may be having a similar effect, as shown by its constant complaint about Kenyans not obeying its dictates. Indeed, many Kenyans are openly flouting the government’s directives, often citing their impracticality.
Given the potential harm, it is critical that the Kenyan government and media urgently reverse course. The state must start treating its citizens as partners rather than problems. It needs to learn to talk to the public and not just order people around. Kenyan media, meanwhile, should drop the cheerleading act and take up its role as the public’s watchdog.
In this way, rather than government dictating directives to a hapless populace, a whole-of-society consensus on what to do about the coronavirus can begin to emerge.
This article was first published by the Washington Post