Suspending pandemic reality

Exasperated at politicians, Nanjala Nyabola reflects on the disastrous consequences of poor leadership in a pandemic. 

A nurse administers a vaccine at Kapenguria County Referral Hospital in West Pokot, Kenya. 
Irene Angwenyi, USAID/Flickr

It’s difficult to capture the mood in Nairobi these days. The reality of the pandemic is bearing down upon us once again and, as I write, the western third of the country remains under strict lockdown following the spread of the Covid-19 Delta variant. The situation at the public hospitals is dire.

We know that all the major variants are in the country. Yet the government allowed the Safari Rally, a racing event that had been off the calendar for more than two decades, to go ahead in June. More still, the route took drivers through some of the country’s national park and protected areas. It’s as if the government, by suspending its own rules, was inviting us to suspend reality itself: an approach that many governments around the world seem to be employing. As we watch the Delta variant tear through neighbouring Uganda and South Africa, state sanctioned social gatherings continue almost unabated in Kenya, leading observers to fear that an India style third wave of epic proportions cannot be far away.

It’s been said that the mark of intelligence is the ability to keep two contradictory thoughts at the same time. Perhaps this pandemic proves that Kenyans are incredibly intelligent because of the sheer volume of paradox we are expected to survive every day. The government that is supposed to look out for our wellbeing is leading the charge in exposing us to tremendous harm. It can impose some of the most expansive restrictions on freedom of movement in the name of public health, and days later the president will invite hundreds of spectators to gather for a frivolous event. Not to mention the numerous political rallies – both spontaneous and planned – that have been held even as the rate of positive cases in the country steadily rises.

What will happen to Kenya once this state of perpetual contradiction no longer holds? What will happen when the consequences of the poor choices that are being taken by political leaders finally come home to roost? It’s a fear that we sit with as we watch the devastating scenes from India. There, as in Kenya, politicians scored early victories against the spread of the virus, fuelled almost entirely by restrictions imposed on the most marginalized, only to squander them. It was poor migrants emptying out of cities on foot, towards economic destruction, who had the most to lose as India struggled to keep the outbreak at bay. Similarly, it has been Kenya’s urban poor obeying strict curfews and absorbing the economic losses of nationwide shutdowns that have stayed Kenya’s pandemic back.

Individual and community level action has saved Kenya from a far worse outbreak than we have witnessed to date – as communities accepted that the government wasn’t coming to help them and found ways to provide for each other and themselves. But this isn’t a public health strategy. Citizens acting in the absence of government cannot outrun the consequences of a government acting in contradiction to the interests of the people.

It’s a tense and loaded time. We are all wondering what the world will look like once the centre can no longer hold.