• The branding of those who circumvent the MoH guidelines as lacking in personal discipline has been another ill-advised feature of the government’s response.
• By attributing citizens’ choices to a failure to control impulses, such language dismisses rather than engages with citizens’ complaints.
Barely a week after the government tentatively allowed restaurants to reopen from 5 am to 4 pm, Health CS Mutahi Kagwe seemed unhappy.
Apparently surprised that Kenyans were actually patronizing these establishments and having beer with sausages, he immediately threatened to shut them down once again, if such “indiscipline” continued.
Such frustrations reflect the approach of a government used to demanding obedience rather than seeking consent.
Efforts to control the coronavirus pandemic have treated it less as a public health issue than as a problem of law and order with the criminal justice system in the vanguard of addressing the crisis.
However, this has mired the response in the muck of the contentious relationship between the police and the public.
The government’s advice has thus come to be viewed as the latest excuse for the continuation of decades of predatory policing and an invitation to citizens to deploy the tactics they have developed to resist such predation – including subterfuge.
Unschooled in the principles of public health, the police have completely misunderstood the objective and seen the measures as opportunities to extract bribes.
This has resulted in perverse and dangerous outcomes, where police force people into crowded vans and crowded cells all under the pretext of enforcing social distancing rules, arrest motorists for failing to wear masks, even when alone in their vehicles, and drag families from their homes for not wearing masks indoors.
The branding of those who circumvent the Ministry of Health guidelines as lacking in personal discipline has been another ill-advised feature of the government’s response.
By attributing citizens’ choices to a failure to control impulses, such language dismisses rather than engages with citizens’ complaints, and assumes they cannot have legitimate reasons for disagreeing with the government’s policies.
Kagwe’s repeated decrying of Kenyans’ supposed “indiscipline” has treated the public as children needing the rod of the state to straighten them out.
But even as the state seeks to positions itself as a father figure, its own conduct has been questionable, to say the least.
Its agents have engaged in the illegal demolition of homes at the very same time that it has been urging citizens to stay indoors. Its utilisation of funds for the coronavirus response has been shown to be less than prudent.
It has also prioritised paying hundreds of millions of shillings in unconstitutional retirement benefits to former presidents, vice presidents and prime ministers, while loudly proclaiming it has no money to pay to repatriate citizens stranded abroad, pay the costs of putting people in mandatory quarantine as the law requires it to do or to provide free masks and testing to the general public.
Kenyan media reporting as well has tended to repeat rather than question the government line.
There have been few attempts to distil the reality behind the numbers announced at the daily briefings as well as to probe the choices that the government has been making.
While public officials have not made the media’s job easy, restricting the flow of information and the number of questions they are willing to answer during press briefings, it is also true that journalists have generally been reluctant to delve beyond official narratives and have done little to inform and encourage public debate over the issues.
“Trust and obey” has seemed to be the overriding message.
In East Asian countries such as South Korea and Taiwan, where compliance with government directives has helped tackle coronavirus, trust in governments as custodians of the public interest tends to be high.
Not so in Kenya, where the ability for citizens to hold errant politicians to account is largely absent.
More than a century of humiliation, oppression and robbery, first by the British colonial authorities and their successors in the independent government, has left Kenyans sceptical of the intentions of the state.
This scepticism is now being transferred to the health system, resulting not just in defiance, but also in people staying away from health centres, and fearful of being tested.
"Just as such a crisis reveals the characters of individuals and societies, it also illuminates the core values governments hold," writes Prof Ruth Ben-Ghiat.
And under the harsh light of Covid-19, the Kenyan government cannot but show the contempt in which it holds its citizenry.
Until Kagwe and his colleagues learn to address Kenyans as adults and to treat them with dignity, there will be more frustrating days ahead for them.
Gathara is a cartoonist, writer and commentator on Kenyan and international affairs.