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Exposed: Limits of state and public trust during the Covid-19 pandemic in Kenya

Police on patrol in Kakamega County. Credit: Issac Wale. Nation Media Group.

As of 9 November 2020, there have been 61,769 confirmed Covid-19 positive cases, 41,019 recoveries, and 1,103 reported deaths in Kenya. To reach this sad milestone since March 2020 when the first case was reported in the country has been a chaotic journey beset with confusion, drama, and diverse forms of disconnection. It all began with the sudden adoption of what has since turned out to be a global knee-jerk response to the pandemic: governments instituting and effecting a range of containment measures and interventions from restricting human mobility locally and internationally through closing international boundaries and suspending flights. This was followed up by profiling and cordoning off the pandemic hotspot locations within countries; and finally introducing social distancing and personal hygiene practices hitherto unheard of in some communities, especially in Africa.

The rapid increase in cases of Covid-19 since March when the country’s first case was identified highlights both the complex dynamics of the viral disease and the chaotic nature of public health responses to novel problems. The identification of the country’s first case in March 2020 prompted the country to institute drastic containment measures through presidential decree: abrupt closure of learning institutions and businesses, nationwide curfews and complete lockdown of suspected hotspot locations: Nairobi, Mombasa, Kilifi, and Kwale; and later expanding to Mandera and Migori counties. A motley of presidential and ministerial statements, orders, and directives were frenetically churned out by the state at the core of which was the attempt to modify public behaviour through nationwide mandatory mask-wearing.

Contrary to basic public health promotion protocols and expectations, the implementation and enforcement of these behavioural measures were handed over to the police. The effect was instant: Covid-19 became a law enforcement issue rather than a health promotion concern. Within days, the fear of Covid-19 was replaced by fear of the police. People were more concerned about the possibility of being ‘caught’ by the police than contracting the coronavirus. Inevitably compliance became motivated by fear of the state rather than concern for personal safety and life. In an Orwellian turn, people carried masks because Big Brother could be watching; and indeed, many have been brutally reminded of Big Brother’s presence.

The containment measures and actions have brought into focus the contours of state power, preferred tactics of deploying that power, levels of preparedness, and functionality of the state systems in times of crisis. More importantly, they have exposed the nature of the relationship between the state and citizenry. Its use of the full array of government instruments, especially their deployment and interactions with the citizens in the management of the pandemic, reveals itself as either a systemically insensitive and barely coherent service delivery system, or socially distant governmentality. At face value, each of the adopted measures seems straightforward, technically effective, and discursively credible. But they are disconnected and at times contradict normative public health procedures. The public’s response has been varied, ranging from compliance to defiance and protest. Even where compliance has been publicly observed, anecdotal evidence suggests a lack of individual and communal commitment, deteriorating personal responsibility and adherence over time, and growing frustration with the state as the proponent of the measures.

Defiance and violation of measures

The Empty Coffin: On April 9, 2020 people were arrested in Homa Bay county after travelling from Nairobi (about 500 kilometres) in defiance of the curfew and lockdown over the city. The group of 9 people had an empty coffin and fake travel papers with which they allegedly managed to bribe their way through numerous police-manned roadblocks on the road to Homa Bay. Upon testing, the driver of the matatu was found to be Covid-19 positive leading to the first reported case in the rural county. Days later, the driver publicly contested the results impugning their veracity and by extension the government’s attempt to accuse him of spreading the pandemic.

Doubtful Hotspot: In May after a section of Mombasa county (Old Town) was declared a Covid-19 hotspot, it was reported that families were sneaking their relatives out of the area. Residents shared rumours that the lockdown of the area was suspicious and had nothing to do with the pandemic. One of the elderly members who had been sneaked out was diagnosed positive when she was taken to hospital days later in critical condition and unfortunately died. Meanwhile, those who stayed in the area (Old Town) remained suspicious of government Covid-19 surveillance using mass testing. Their reactions ranged from declining to go for testing by many to doubting or outright rejection of positive results and openly questioning the basis of the government’s profiling the area as a Covid-19 hotspot.

Police on patrol in Kakamega County. Credit: Issac Wale. Nation Media Group.

The two incidents described above reported in the Kenyan media are not isolated. There are many more and they are varied. According to the Ministry of Health, they are representative of an emerging behavioural pattern that includes the smuggling of persons in and out of restricted areas – the hotspot counties – in defiance of government directives; and illustrative of many of the country’s public responses to the coronavirus disease containment measures. Furthermore, they raise a series of puzzles which hinge on but also question the relationship between the government, especially the public health system, and its citizenry: first, the creative ways of defying the state (using an empty coffin presumably to portray the journey as necessary); secondly, the porousness of the state machinery to effectively implement its measures and thus guarantee safety from infection (the corruption found at the roadblock where payment of bribes can facilitate passage and ease of families relocating from designated hotspots despite the curfews and lockdowns of the areas); and third, disbelief of public health expertise or validity of its pronouncements (the driver’s questioning of the results given by the medical professionals or the credibility of the criteria of designating a community as a Covid-19 hotspot).

Government responses to pandemics often adopt a set pathway: from screening foreigners entering the country and overseas passengers before they disembark, testing suspected individuals, isolating, and treating all cases, and quarantining contacts. The social dimension of the process is often invisible: how people, households, and communities respond to new behavioural and socialization demands of infection and transmission prevention is often problematic as the above incidents illustrate. Covid-19 has presented unique problems and opportunities as extraordinary social crises are prone to generating. It has also posed threats to social order and polity. Because of the pandemic, the government has unleashed waves of fear, induced panic, planted stigma, and cultivated moralizing albeit chaotic calls to action as a governing tactic. The immediate pandemic threat provides a public rationale for the deployment of these tactics, but they have also provided strategic camouflage for the deficiencies of the public health system. By conflating public health promotion with public order, the government has turned the pandemic into a social and political opportunity to expand and justify its instinct to discipline and punish at will, and promote a set of behaviours and practices which dispossess the citizenry to limited individual agency, freedoms, and rights. Behind this disciplinary obsession by the state apparatus is the effort to divert scrutiny of the deficiencies of the public health system to anticipate and respond to a threatening health crisis. It is also a strategy to pre-empt public anger against a health system long known for mafia-like corruption scandals.

If there is an emerging lesson from the Covid-19 pandemic it is this: power is never linear but complex, fluid and contradictory. Thus, while providing an opportunity to unleash state disciplinary tendencies on the public in the name of securing health of the people, Covid-19 has exposed the limits of its power to frame, define and control the conceptual and discursive meanings of crises. The incoherence between the health system and the state security apparatus has created fissures through which citizens can create and activate alternative narratives, meanings, and acts of defiance. The end result is ironic. Instead of Covid-19 providing a moment for expanding the state, it has engineered erosion of public trust in its apparatus. The question for further exploration is whether this is good for democracy’s entrenchment in the global South.

This article was published by African Arguments.


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