• Irungu Houghton

How Covid pandemic brought out the best and worst in Kenyans

Updated: Jan 2


How will we explain this year to a generation that didn’t live through 2020? The loss of our personal freedoms and the collective fear of contracting Covid-19. The endless washing of hands and masking up. The online work meetings and family hangouts and funerals. The loneliness and boredom. The fatigue and bravery of our health workers and police officers and the medical neglect and the violence. The corona spreading “Covidiotic” and tender grabbing behaviour. The grief of seeing our loved ones succumb to an invisible virus.


Most of the 200,000 police officers, doctors, nurses and clinical officers brought honour to the nation. They worked long hours, under-resourced and completely unprotected at times to serve the public. With close to 2,000 health-workers infected and 70 deaths, we must appreciate the emotional chord that Dr Stephen Mogusu’s last words, “save your lives” struck.


We must also challenge those with state resources to ensure that they are promptly paid and adequately protected. Calling health workers heroes are platitudes that may make us feel better but do not safeguard the nation’s front line.


We learned this year that police violence is the most brutal tool a state can use to enforce public health guidelines. According to the Missing Voices researchers, 144 people died at the hands of police officers this year. Many of them were shot, beaten or brutalised during curfew. The first six died in the first 10 days of the curfew. They included a Good Samaritan, Hamisi Juma, killed while trying to deliver a pregnant woman to a healthcare facility, and13-year-old Yassin Moyo among several others.


By August, the Distressed Yet Defiant opinion poll revealed that more Kenyans feared police brutality more than poverty. It took public outrage, detailed human rights monitoring, arrests and prosecutions to reverse the secondary spike of violence. By September, the number of police brutality incidents had come down by 80 per cent. Dozens of officers had been arrested or suspended and over 200 investigation files had been opened.


The culture of excessive use of force and extortion by police officers did not land with the virus, however. Indeed, one wonders whether the violence seen would have happened if the formal Senate Enquiry into Extrajudicial Executions planned for the end of February had taken place.


In 2021, the state must lift the veil of secrecy around the actions being taken to create discipline within the police service. They must directly and openly address the culture of violence and corruption with the practise of instant dismissals and prosecutions as well as violence de-escalation training and community leadership skills development. Perhaps we could extend the fortnightly #EngageTheIG tweet chat, the instant fines, digital courts, police station and prison decongestion next year?


Protection also became punishment in the management of mandatory quarantine centres. Isolated and without psychosocial support, 27-year-old South African Elizabeth Holloway tragically committed suicide barely two weeks into the programme. Many of the other 2,000 detainees were subjected to bankruptcy, poor testing and distancing protocols, sanitary facilities, inadequate food and psychosocial support. It took public and parliamentary pressure to lift the compulsory fees before the programme was finally abandoned in May.


We must act on the painful lesson that a four-county pilot is not universal health coverage in 2021. Vast road and transportation infrastructure will not assist ambulances in emergencies if the hospitals have no facilities and health workers are on strike. Given the financial crisis, the government must prioritise essential services and swift and safe roll-out of a free Covid-19 vaccine in 2021.


There were also moments of leadership and hope this year. The Health ministry handled the public’s right to information well. The new-found synergy between the national and county governments also saw the rapid expansion of health facilities. Democracies up against disasters require mastery in real-time listening and collaborative responding.


Families living in informal settlements and marginalised communities faced the worst of the economic impact of the pandemic. Public health guidelines designed for the middle-class ignored millions of families without water, sanitation or financial savings to survive the lockdown and night curfews. Policy decisions to not disconnect water and electricity defaulters and extend services to informal settlements were also important points of temporary relief.


The Interior ministry’s May 11 declaration of a moratorium on forced evictions followed the inhumane eviction of 7,000 families, many of them female-headed households, in Kariobangi North. This decision probably stopped 13 other planned evictions to pave the way for water and sanitation facilities.


Citizens, journalists and civic organisations also successfully challenged injustices. The Mombasa-based Uhuru-Owino community and the Centre for Justice, Governance and Environmental Action successfully sued the State for Sh1.3 billion after a decade of lead poisoning and state negligence. The Shule Yangu Alliance pressed the state to title and protect 11,000 public schools from land-grabbing. Investigative journalists Dennis Okari, Asha Mwilu, Gordon Osen and Waihiga Mwaura among others braved backlash to exercise the publics’ right to know.


The pandemic fundamentally shifted Kenya and altered our view of Kenyans. For close to a year, we withdrew from schools, workplaces, places of worship and entertainment and stayed home where we could. Out of either conviction or the fear of consequences, we all retreated to protect each other.


For some, the shattered status quo left them trying to preserve or even expand their privilege through the year. As ordinary people took to the streets to beg, steal or commit other crimes of distress, elite panic reared its’ ugly head.


A few saw the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to profit. In so doing, they created the coronapreneur, a new name for our oldest predatory tribe. In turning their backs, these Kenyans rejected any responsibility for others when it was needed most.


For others, a new understanding of the importance of interconnectedness has emerged. Losing or watching others lose their job, home and medical insurance is a humbling reminder of what it means for millions to not have financial, emotional and health security. As our views shifted, another version of ourselves and the country became possible.


Year 2020 will be best remembered for those epic acts of courage and citizenship that showed up in our homes, neighbourhoods and counties. My favourite was those Kilimani children who discussed the killing of Yassin Moyo in an online class and then sent me to deliver their personal letters to his family in Kiamaiko.


This and countless other moments are a constant reminder that there are enough of us who will not be distracted by personal comfort or blinded by indifference. That if we keep seeking out and supporting each other, we will one day, pose a real challenge to the arrogant and the powerful who seek to divide and misrule us.


By the time the virus landed, inequalities, corruption and impunity had built the perfect host for the virus to attack us and our social fabric. While the virus will eventually be sorted out by the vaccine, we must uproot the ecosystem that has given it so much power over us.


Police brutality, medical neglect, forced evictions and discrimination in an unequal society is not inevitable. It is possible to have a nation in which these systemic viruses too, do not exist. We would all be better off, but we would have to stand up and make it happen in our neighbourhoods, counties and the country. All of us, together.


Versions of this opinion were published in the Daily Nation and Saturday Standard, 31 December 2020 and 2 January 2021.

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