A recent conference on Covid-19 held in Nairobi assessed Kenya’s response to the pandemic. From a panel that included Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe and other officials involved in the country’s handling of the pandemic, we heard many success stories.
No individual, organisation or nation can make progress without the ability to reimagine and reinvent themselves. America, for example, says that the most defining feature of its national character is the ability to constantly reimagine and reinvent herself.
In just six months, Kenya leap-frogged from having no testing labs to 38. Most incredibly, in just six months, the country installed more ICU beds than it had since independence. These stories are encouraging but they also raise a damning question: If so much can be done in six months, what could have been achieved in the last 75 had we had similar focus and determination?
However, these stories, positive as they are, do not equate to unqualified success. There were false starts. There was theft of Covid-19 funds. There were instances of managerial laxity.
There were cases when we sent our frontline soldiers to fight the disease without proper equipment. And there are allegations that doctors who died in the line of duty had not been paid their dues.
Consider these serious failures against the fact that had the disease panned out as it had in Europe or America, these successes would have paled in significance and the failures would have been suicidal.
And so the panel should have been more forthcoming about these missteps and mismanagement when the moderator of the discussion asked them to the ministry’s performance.
Instead, the minister opted for a circumlocutory and vague response that is the hallmark of officialdom: highlight the positives, muddle through areas of incompetence and thievery, and draw a picture of complete success.
Another obfuscatory method used by officialdom and which was employed by another member of that panel is to intimidate would be critics by saying: Let us stop beating ourselves or we Kenyans are too negative.
I have heard similar intimidation at academic conferences on Africa where critics of pan-African dogma are accused of being incorrigible Afro-pessimists — people who never believe anything good can ever come out of Africa.
But self evaluation and criticism involves brutal and painful honesty.
For countries that are so far behind in development terms, there should be zero tolerance for thievery, and severe sanction for negligence or incompetence.
The Ministry of Health and the country must now take advantage of the merciful let-off, build on their modest success, and build a public health system able to handle the next health emergency. This will involve ridding the ministry of thieving cartels that have crippled the sector.