Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Bullying will cost lives

I don't like bullies. I especially don't like bullies who use the colour of authority to grind their heels into the backs of the little guy. Systems that are built on oppression don't know how to do anything that smacks of helping the weak or vulnerable. They only know how to coerce and punish. These systems are reflected in the rules they make and the manner in which those rules are enforced. The Covid-19 pandemic continues to remind us of these simple truths.

On the 25th March, we were told that a nationwide nighttime curfew would be imposed on the 27th in order to maximise nighttime social distancing as many Kenyans had defied the earlier social distancing guidelines by visiting en masse entertainment joints - pubs, clubs, places of worship and whatnot. The rationale behind the nighttime curfew was sound, in the circumstances. The manner in which it was imposed and enforced was incredibly not. It was imposed by bullies and it was enforced by bullies. The ostensible reason for the curfew - the protection of the civilian population from harm - was not reflected in how the curfew was imposed - through police violence and the killing of at least five Kenyans.

It is written in other places that Kenya has a low-trust environment when it comes to interactions between governmental institutions and the people. The police are distrusted by many adults, if not the majority of adults. Through their sheer ubiquitousness, the police, armed and otherwise, are everywhere, imposing their will on everyone, but especially the workingman. For better and for worse, the police are the face of the governmental response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The health minister and his cabinet counterparts can give all the press briefings they want, but at the end of the day, the physical embodiment of the government's response to the pandemic is the policeman on the street, bullying and intimidating Wanjiku in the name of her safety.

I am not an epidemiologist or a public health expert. I couldn't begin to design an effective response programme to the pandemic. I don't know how many doctors, nurses or other healthcare workers we need to respond effectively. I don't know how many infected people need to be quarantined and isolated in order to protect the majority. I don't know where to find the money to pay for hospital personnel and equipment, or personal protective gear. I don't know which taxes to waive and for how long in order to ensure that the pandemic doesn't totally crater the economy. I don't know how to ensure that more people buy into the governmental message of personal hygiene (hand-washing), social distancing and collective responsibility. There are many, many things that I cannot do to respond to the pandemic. There are, however, trained and experienced experts who know what to do, how to do it, when to do it and how to pay for it.

They know or have the technical and professional knowledge and experience to determine what it will cost to effectively respond to the pandemic. Some are in government. Many are not. In a low-trust environment, one built on decades of oppressive governmental actions, it beggars belief (or it should, anyway) that experts are largely there as window-dressing. To be seen, and if heard, only as an indulgence and not as critical voices guiding the nation in a truly horrific challenge. You can tell that people who are trained to deal with an epidemic are not leading the conversation when the principal tool for responding to it is police coercive and violent force. And rather than design a response plan that deploys the police to assist the public health authorities, the health minister urges the people to "avoid situations" that invite police violence. Bullying, as a strategy, will not lead to success. It will lead to resistance. It will lead to resentment. It will erode what little trust government enjoys. And it will cost lives as it fails over and over.

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