As the coronavirus matches on throughout the world, yet unchecked by a viable and available vaccine, Kenyans who previously were aggressively pursuing their dreams and aspirations are now on their knees, desperate for help. These people are not lazy.
They have worked hard throughout their careers to build solid reputations as productive, stable people who took care of their families (even the extended ones). They built businesses from the ground up and woke up early to grow their careers and businesses. Now they have been reduced to pleading for help just to survive and get by.
“Please see how you can help. Imagine we have no food,” read one text that I received this week from the teacher doing quite well before this crisis started. “Imagine I have ‘eaten’ all the float I had and I am now in debt and it’s still growing,” texted another friend.
On social media last week, a video was making rounds of a man walking in Nairobi’s Kilimani, which is usually safe to walk during the day. (Happy update, the muggers were arrested in record time)
The man was accosted by knives and pistol-wielding young men who took his bag and money and sauntered away. What was more shocking was that this was happening right in front of a gate in broad daylight and the young men were not afraid.
Meanwhile, news reached us this week that former Prime Minister Raila Odinga had been flown to a German Hospital in the United Arab Emirates for minor surgery in his back.
“Jakom (Raila) is out of the country for a minor surgical operation on his back. It is not a serious health issue, but just a minor one. So, he’s okay,” his brother, Dr Oburu Oginga announced to the media.
This newspaper later reported that Raila had in fact been admitted to the International Hospital in the UAE to correct a problem with a nerve that affected one of his legs.
Income inequality in Kenya has reached staggering levels as these stories demonstrate. There are a few Kenyans fortunate enough to have reserves so that they have rent and food that allow them to work from home for longer than others. The vast majority are those struggling to get these basic necessities.
Wealth Poverty gap ever wider
According to Oxfam International, the gap between the richest and poorest has reached extreme levels in Kenya. “Less than 0.1 per cent of the population (8,300 people) own more wealth than the bottom 99.9 per cent (more than 44 million people),” they said on their blog, adding that the richest 10 per cent of Kenyans earned on average 23 times more than the poorest 10 per cent. It has been predicted that the number of millionaires will grow by 80 per cent over the next 10 years, with 7,500 new millionaires set to be minted.
Perhaps keeping Mr Odinga’s plight in mind, I am aware that despite improvements in health status over the last decade, the government spends only 6 per cent of its budget on health. A quarter of the Kenyan population regularly lacks access to healthcare. A recent study estimated that nearly 2.6 million people fall into poverty or remain poor due to ill health each year.
This contributes to hopelessness and lack of faith in our institutions, encourages tribal and class hatred and drives communities further apart. It is important for us to be aware that inequality was created by the hands and sustained efforts of people who engineered benefits for themselves, to the detriment of everyone else.
Middle Class Problem
A major challenge that keeps the status quo in place is Kenya’s rather fickle middle class that operates like frogs in boiling water. The county government fails to collect garbage and gated communities organise private services.
The water services companies fail to provide water for people and developers dig boreholes (see picture on left) as part of their development. Kenya Power fails us – especially when it rains and the middle class buys generators and power inverters. The government fails to provide healthcare and the middle-class resorts to more efficient and expensive private hospitals.
Why don’t we enact a law (public pressure is needed to create it) that requires all public servants to be treated in government hospitals only?
When MPs and the middle class go to Kenyatta National Hospital, health care will change.
Unfortunately, the middle class in Kenya has literally been one crisis away from extreme poverty and for many, this is the case. As the Covid-19 pandemic has moved many businesses into recession and debt, many people have had to move to “gichagi” (upcountry) to save on rent and other expenses.
This pandemic presents us with the opportunity to re-engineer Kenya’s socio-economic status in a way that is more sustainable and equitable. We have an opportunity to ensure that services are delivered. Let’s start with health.
Those of us with power and privilege must grapple with a more profound question: What are we willing to give up?Darren Walker, Ford Foundation President in this OpEd
This means from the president to the Chief Justice, from parliamentarians and MCAs, from teachers and policemen to tax clerks all would have to go to public hospitals. The law would require that everyone is treated exactly the same and that there should be no special considerations for anyone.
The fact is as soon as parliamentarians, Cabinet secretaries and other VIPs start experiencing the challenges of public hospitals, they will find lasting solutions to our health sector – and certainly, the health sector would not receive only 6 per cent of the budget.
I am a big fan of what Darren Walker, the President of the Ford Foundation said in a recent New York Times Opinion. “Our economy is unbalanced because conscious choices, in the aggregate, amount to a conscienceless capitalism. These choices erode democracy and foment distrust. We, the people, can make different choices. And we, the wealthy and privileged, should lean in to our discomfort.”
But I am not wealthy or privileged. If you know that absent a major catastrophe, you are likely to be living in the same house in the next 3 months, you have enough to eat and can plan for next month – You are privileged and fortunate!