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The coronavirus pandemic will not only leave Kenyans much poorer, but also change the political landscape profoundly, according to the latest thinking. One likely casualty will be the constitutional changes advocated by the new alliance between President Uhuru Kenyatta and erstwhile opposition leader Raila Odinga (AC Vol 60 No 24, Building shaky bridges).
As of 31 March, the country had reported just one fatality and 59 confirmed cases, most traceable to returning Kenyans or tourists. The figures are expected to rise for two reasons: a very large segment of economic transactions are conducted in the informal sector face to face, making it all but impossible to enforce the isolation the government is recommending. Also, city-dwellers infected but undiagnosed are fleeing to their rural homes, where they will spread the infection further.
Secondly, Kenya does not have the necessary medical preventive and surveillance capacity, let alone the curative facilities and support. Many poor Kenyans are prepared – or obliged – to take the risk anyway, trading in the open and riding in overcrowded matatu minibuses despite the warnings.
On 25 March, President Kenyatta finally made a long-awaited television address on the crisis, promising a raft of economic reforms to keep the economy afloat and to provide financial relief to the most distressed Kenyans. Two days before, he had given a speech on the completion of 4G data coverage across Kenya, a misplacement of priorities which Kenyans took badly. In his address, he put the country under a dusk-to-dawn curfew and demanded social distancing in public places. Schools have been closed and public rallies banned. Kenyatta may be uninspiring himself, but the recently appointed health minister Mutahi Kagwe is popular and well-regarded.
Meanwhile, the economy slides. Tourism, international remittances, horticultural exports to Europe, hospitality, transport and trade have been severely hit. The Treasury had predicted a 6.1% GDP growth rate this year but most informed Kenyan economists expect lower than 3%.
At Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) rallies, intended to widen the executive arm of government to accommodate the opposition, Odinga's followers habitually sang Lucky Dube's 'Nobody Can Stop Reggae'. Reggae being the BBI. Now their rivals, mostly allied to Deputy President William Ruto are chanting 'Covid-19 Can Stop Reggae'. There is humour even in these morbid times.
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