• Irungu Houghton

Will widening inequalities be the most enduring impact of COVID-19?



At the risk of appearing too pre-occupied with Harambee House, this opinion focuses on a presidential address again. This week’s State of the Nation address got me re-thinking the view that Kenyans should dismiss the hustlers and dynasties binary as a false choice. Perhaps there are two parallel Kenyas. The Kenya of macro policy intentions and achievements and another, for masses.


It took 52-word tweet by Journalist Leon Lidigu to utterly puncture President Kenyatta’s 55-minute Presidential address for me. Lidigu simply asked, how is there money for a referendum when there is no money to insure COVID-19 patients, masks for school children, testing reagents or rapid testing kits? How indeed, we must all ask?


Lidigus’ question does not invalidate the significant policy actions taken this year to prevent virus-laden droplets from tearing through our lungs, hearts, kidneys and brains or to keep the economy alive. In fairness, the address did also refer to the indignity of poverty, homelessness, unemployment and for all to share the national prosperity equitably.


What did undermine his address was its failure to powerfully speak to, what could turn out to be the most enduring impact of COVID-19, widening inequalities in our society. The speech failed to vividly capture the cost of inequalities today, and more importantly, how the gap between helicopters owners and boda bodas riders will be narrowed.


Equality is not only a moral issue. It is a constitutional and therefore, also a political obligation. Article 26 states that all of us are equal under the law, must be accorded equal opportunities and not be discriminated against on any grounds. The State is required to take all measures including affirmative action to ensure that inequalities and discrimination are progressively eliminated.


Even with a Government declared 5.4 per cent growth and upward trends in manufacturing, tourism, financial services and agriculture, Kenya was the 56th most unequal society in the world in 2019. Ten per cent of the population own 48 per cent of the national income. All the men and women making critical executive, legislative, judicial and business decisions across 46 counties and Nairobi are in the top five per cent of this steep pyramid.


It is not just wealth that keeps them apart from the rest. They and their families live and socialize in different neighborhoods, attend different schools and health-centers. Buttressed by power, patronage and privilege, the system is rigged against the emergence of compassionate political elite and an organised public demand from below.


The fact that one in two Kenyans’ incomes have reduced and one in five may have lost their jobs or seen their hustles crash this year, needed a mention in the Presidential address. What about those tenants who were evicted by the 92 per cent of landlords who didn’t listen to the Presidents’ April appeal to waive rents? Or that while we continue to clutch useless NHIF cards, only two per cent of families have the space to safely self-isolate or quarantine family members in their homes?


A line or two could have vividly recreated increasing distress related crimes. Grandmothers and grandchildren stealing for food, to pay rent and survive. Or that the thousands of girls who were raped or had unprotected sex without the option of a safe abortion during this season were overwhelmingly from poorer communities. All of this is Kenya too or isn’t it?


Extreme inequality was a global crisis before COVID-19. That 26 white men own the same amount of wealth as the poorest half of the world must worry us. Kenyatta’s recent Vatican host, Pope Francis has referred to it as the root of social evil. Within this context, Ben Phillips’ excellent new book “How to Fight Inequality and Why That Fight Needs You” needs to be read by policymakers and advocates for a fairer Kenya. He convincingly argues inequality undermines upward mobility for millions, restricts broad domestic markets and accelerates high levels of crime and social mistrust.


Government has got more powerful and intrusive in all our lives during this season. We have ceded many personal freedoms mostly for our own safety. Is it not too much to demand that the Government builds back better by reducing inequalities, invest in essential services, raise minimum wages, reduce the burden of unpaid work and strengthen unions, cooperatives and associations that can represent the have-nots? Or are these, not very Kenyan thoughts but a referendum is?


This opinion was also published in the Saturday Standard 14 November, 2020

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