After patiently waiting my turn for six months, I got vaccinated against COVID-19 this week. Viewed within the lens of income, social and labor inequalities in Kenya, this was late. Most of my peers have been immunized twice and are eying 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. 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 Kshs 7.9 trillion on top of their estimated wealth of 19.2 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% tax for all the billionaires to vaccinate everyone and protect workers who have lost their 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 their incomes plummet. Inequalities remain higher in urban centres peaking in the informal settlements and female headed households. Oxfam research argues that extreme inequality remains out of control in Kenya. 8,300 people (0.1%) own more wealth than the 44 million people (bottom 99.9%).
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, hands outs over enlightened leadership choices. Powerful civil servants across our ministries will be 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.
This opinion was also published in the Sunday Standard, 15 August 2021