IMF Help- more money for looting

The IMF has approved a Ksh 78.4 Bn loan for Kenya to fight Covid-19. IMF deputy managing director Tao Zhang said:

Emergency financing under the Rapid Credit Facility (RCF) will deliver liquidity support to help Kenya cover its balance of payments gap this year

Being a Rapid Credit Facility (RCF) The terms are quite favourable:

Financing under the RCF carries a zero interest rate, has a grace period of five and a half years, and a final maturity of 10 years, according to the IMF concessional lending terms

Knowing the pilferage that is the lasting legacy of the Jubilee government, I am not holding my breath that this money will be put to good use.

We can expect the government to devise all manner of ways to loot. Soon we will hear claims that the government is taking care of 15,000 people in quarantine at a cost of Ksh 5000 per person per day. For a 14-day quarantine window, that is Ksh 1.05Bn meaning Ksh 2.1Bn per month.

A microbe to fight malaria

The Covid-19 pandemic is top of the mind for everybody and it is easy to forget that the medical community is also continuing research in other areas. Malaria, for example, kills 400,000 people annually and efforts to tackle this problem have not borne fruit so far.

However BBC reports that a microbe that can block malaria, Microsporidia MB, has recently been discovered by studying mosquitoes on the shores of Lake Victoria in Kenya. The microbe lives in the gut and genitals of the insects. The discovery may open a new direction in the fight against Malaria.

The researchers could not find a single mosquito carrying the Microsporidia that was harbouring the malaria parasite. And lab experiments, published in Nature Communications, confirmed the microbe gave the mosquitoes protection.

Further research is needed but the plan, going forward, appears simple enough- find a way to infect as many of the mosquitoes as possible with this microbe. Two methods are being considered. The first one involves releasing Microsporidia form spores en masse to infect mosquitoes.

Alternatively, it should be possible to infect male mosquitoes in the lab and release them into the wild so that they, in turn, can infect female mosquitoes. It sounds like all we need is to give these suckers an epidemic of their own.

Bonus point: infecting mosquitoes with this microbe will not kill them. They will live, so that they can be eaten by organisms which depend on them in the environment. They just won’t be able to harbour and transmit the pathogen that causes malaria.

The bigger pandemic

The Ministry of Health in Kenya has released a breakdown of how it spent Ksh 1 Bn ( USD 1Mn). It makes for interesting reading.

  • Ksh 610 Mn to Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI) for procurement of laboratory equipment and kits: This funding is sorely needed but it comes at a time of uncertainty. Last week’s demotion of Dr Joel Lutomiah, the lead scientist in charge of Covid-19 research did not help. It was reported that he was demoted based on instructions from Minister Mutahi Kagwe because “he delayed the announcement of daily testing results”. That reason had a strong whiff of cow dung. His colleagues claimed that he was fired because he has stood firm in demanding funding so that his team can carry out their tasks properly. Specifically, his colleagues said Dr Lutomiah was in trouble largely because he championed the rights of the institution’s workers in regards to protective gear. Was this funding released before or after? It is not uncommon in Kenya for a principled person to be removed from his post so that he can be replaced with more pliable person, in preparation for looting in future.
  • Ksh 70 Mn for advertising: Without revealing the length of the advertising contracts signed, this does not tell us much. However, one wonders if the government did pursue the option of asking media houses to donate slots for mass outreach. Knowing Kenyan government, that would not be the preferable option.
  • Ksh 42 Mn to lease  15 ambulances: It starts looking murky at this point. That is Ksh 2.8 Mn per ambulance. One certainly hopes this is a lease with a good term. Actually, one dare not hope that.
  • Ksh14.4 Mn to maintain and fuel 30 vehicles: Even murkier. This has traditionally been an area of wastage of public funds.
  •  KSh13.5 Mn to accommodate 30 health care workers over a period of three months: More murk. That is Ksh 150,000 per worker per month. Government already has facilities that could be used for this purpose at a fraction of the cost.
  • Ksh11.8 Mn to set up call centres: These call centres have a history of not attending to calls and when they attend calls, information given is questionable at best. Fully working with telecom companies to host this service would have worked just fine. The additional cost in space and headcount would probably have been reasonable in the long term and telcos which are donating cash (that is used in dubious ways) would rather donate in kind. Again, one can guess that option would not be first on the list for the Kenya government because itchy fingers would not have a place to be dipped in.
  • Ksh 9 Mn printing of quarantine and travellers’ forms and discharge forms: This is pure wastage and even on the rough number of the quarantined people, something funny has happened here. Cabinet Secretary should answer.
  • Ksh 6.5 Mn for stationery: Yet more wastage and deforestation
  • Ksh 4 Mn for tea and snacks: It is our time to snack. That is a lot of tea, scones and mandazi for one month. It is just shameful.
  • Ksh 2 Mn for prepaid phones airtime: I find it hard to believe that Safaricom and Airtel could not have provided a special tariff (Closed User Group) for the government employees involved in Covid-19 program. Then again, that is not how our government reasons.

Kenya has the Covid-19 pandemic but the bigger pandemic is wastage of public funds. The only thing our public never wastes is a chance to loot. More than anything else, that is what will kill Kenyans. If and when we finally hire a new Auditor General, a review of Covid-19 funds management will confirm what Kenyans always expected: the leaders have no iota of shame and a global pandemic is a welcome opportunity for them to fleece the country.

Full Steam Ahead Inhalation as Tanzania Fights Covid-19

On 22nd April, Tanzanian President John Magufuli surfaced from his home in Chato, Geita region to provide some direction on the country’s fight against Covid-19. He has been holed up at Chato since 28th March as Covid-19 infections started rising in East Africa.

His address, live-streamed on Tanzania Broadcasting Corporation (TBC), was bizarre. To start with, the heavy presence of heads of security organs was curious, given that this is a matter that falls mostly in the domain of the Ministry of Health. This did not escape the notice of opposition stalwart, Tundu Lissu who reminded the president in an exasperated tweet:

Your Excellency, President Magufuli, The war against Corona cannot be fought using the police, intelligence service and other covert agents. This fight is won by following the advice of experts. Restrict mass gatherings. Perform screening. Acknowledge the reality of the problem. Come out of your hideout in Chato. Lead the country!!!

From the outset, it was clear Magufuli is concerned that the statistics are being communicated in a way that does not reassure Tanzanians.

We also need to say the truth about recoveries. In the statistics shared, of 284 infections according to the prime minister, 100 have already recovered. We need to avoid panic in the citizenry. As far as I know, only 10 people have died. Not everybody who is infected with Corona virus dies.

It says a lot about Magufuli’s leadership style that he did not address that with his people, away from the cameras, right from the start of the Covid-19 crisis. Tanzania recorded its first case of Covid-19 on 16th March. Did it take Magufuli over a month to recognise that something was off with the way the statistics were being reported or is his new-found diligence triggered by the (credible) perception that the situation is steadily deteriorating? Perhaps it is not such a coincidence that the president showed up not long after Minister of Health, Ummy Mwalimu, announced 84 new cases in one day.

If the number of recoveries is accurate, that is encouraging and it needs to be reported. Still, the president misses the point by a mile. It is well known that not all infections lead to death. However, it can reasonably be expected that more infections, in a country that is not well equipped to deal with the pandemic, will logically translate into more deaths. It is a simple matter of proportions and that is the reason his East African neighbours are putting in place various measures to avoid the spread of infection.

If anything, 10 deaths are 10 too many. There are 10 families that have lost their loved ones and the president has a duty to protect all Tanzanian lives. One would imagine that the president and his government would be demonstrating all they are doing to ensure not a single additional death occurs, as opposed to downplaying the issue purely on statistics.

The president is very sensitive about any type of reporting that shows him in less than positive light. In 2016, he fired the Director General of the National Institute for  Medical Research (NIMR), Dr Mwelecele Malecela. Her offence – making public findings that showed the Ziqa virus was present in Tanzania. Three years later, Magufuli laid bare what transpired and the manner in which he handled the matter.

I didn’t want to delay. I fired that person at around 1AM…shortly thereafter, they gave her a job as a boss. They had sent her to announce we have the disease so that tourists would not come to our country…it’s a trick used by imperialists.

Dr Malecela has a stellar CV spanning over 30 years and had been in charge of research in Lymphatic filariasis, a debilitating condition that affects a number of areas in Tanzania. She is now Director of the Department of Control of Neglected Tropical Diseases at WHO. It did not cross the president’s mind that an official of such caliber would have certain professional and ethical obligations to disclose a matter of such magnitude. It is a crass policy of shoot the messenger unless the messenger has a message that makes the president look good.

In times such as these, it is all too easy to blame outsiders – a tactic the president is not shy to use. If it is not imperialists implanting Directors of research to publish findings that scare away tourists, then blaming the jealous neighbours will do. Magufuli believes that the panic about Covid-19 is being fuelled through social media and he also suspects the culprits are in neighbouring countries.

I have discovered that some of the people spreading panic on social media are not even Tanzanians. They are based in neighbouring countries. They are just messing up the Tanzanians…they are creating panic for their own selfish intentions.

He moved on to the quarantine processes and if there was one section of the address that showed that Magufuli is out of his depth, it is his remarks regarding isolation of people suspected to have been exposed to Covid-19.

On the issue of people quarantined in hostels, we need to reevaluate. There is no reason to isolate a person for 14 or 20 days when you can see he is OK. It does not make sense keeping the person in quarantine yet you know chances are that when he is finally released, he might just continue interacting with other infected people out there. Let such a person go. Instead focus on the ones who are sick…we are wasting our resources.

By that statement, Magufuli shows he has not grasped the essence of quarantine and thinks a person appearing OK is a green light of sorts. It is bewildering that he did not define what counts as OK. The concept of incubation period of the virus is essentially not in the president’s mind.

Secondly, if his argument is that the released persons will anyway interact with other infected people, that effectively amounts to an admission that his government has not got a handle on this, and is not willing to invest effort in changing that. If that charade is the approach to quarantining individuals, then it makes sense to just do away with the pretence and close quarantine centres. The president is anyway worried about wasting resources. By his logic, he will then have more than enough resources to deal with perceptibly sick cases if quarantine facilities are closed.

The economy is never far from Magufuli’s mind as he has built his whole reputation on “unparalleled” economic growth. Perhaps that is what has blinded him to the human cost and causes him to wince when resources are used for the welfare of the people. This address also presented an opportunity for him to contradict himself. While he has been painting Covid-19 as a needless panic, manageable through prayers, now he admits he needs help.

Let me also address international financial institutions. This disease has affected the whole world. It has also affected Africa. I would like to advise you and also to make a request to the likes of World Bank. Instead of lending us money to deal with the disease, cancel our debts so that we can redirect the amounts that were set aside for repayments to the fight against Corona virus.

For example, here in Tanzania, our loan repayments are TZS 700 Bn per month and of this, about TZS 200-300 Bn goes to World Bank….now would be a good time for the World Bank to provide cancel repayments, even if just by a certain percentage…This will be a good gesture towards poor countries.

Magufuli has previously insisted that Tanzania is not poor. Barely a year ago, in this clip for example, he says that he has commissioned over 352 health centres all financed from internal revenue sources. He promises the audience that during his presidency, Tanzania would be known as a rich country and would in fact be in a position to be a lender to other countries. He further says the notion that Tanzania needs assistance should be discarded because begging is a major disease and the country has borrowed too much since independence. Now we see him begging for a good gesture towards his poor country.

The president’s thin skin would not let him ignore the criticism on social media that has escalated over the past few days. He circled back to the matter, giving an indication of how much the criticism is rankling him.

I am calling on security organs. IGP [Inspector General of Police], you are here. Deal with [those who are misusing social media] by working with TCRA[Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority] and other security intelligence services

As is his nature, he failed to understand that one cannot fully deal with perceived disinformation by deploying security organs. The flak he has been receiving was naturally triggered by a combination of his noticeable absence at the helm, a sore lack of preventative measures in the face of the pandemic topped off by a weak and uncoordinated communication strategy.

Tanzanians have been treated to a circus where health experts, the Minister of Health and the Regional Commissioner of Dar es Salaam, for example, have been talking at cross purposes. The people are also aware of measures being undertaken in neighbouring countries to stem the spread of the virus. Yet they do not see similar efforts on the part of their leadership. To assume that arresting the people behind the voices which are calling out this state of affairs would deal with the problem go away is naive.

The time for solutions was nigh. Magufuli called on Tanzanians to use traditional methods, for example steam therapy.

I am calling on the Ministry of Health to emphasise steam therapy because it is scientifically clear. The water vapour is at a temperature higher than 100 degrees centigrade. Since the virus is fat-based, it will melt. All the viruses in the nose and mouth will be melt.

Steam therapy is carried out in many African households. For example if one has a cold or flu, some eucalyptus leaves, mint plants and lemon will be boiled in a pot. The person huddles over the pot and covers himself with a blanket so that the steam does not escape. This is simply a makeshift sauna and the inhaled steam helps to alleviate symptoms by clearing the air pathways. The effect is largely palliative and buys time as the body fights the infection.

There is no way the person is inhaling steam at 100 degrees centigrade – that would simply result in serious injury or death. There is a temperature gradient between the release of the steam from the pot and the time the person inhales it. Logically, the inhaled steam will not be at the same temperature as boiled water. While some relief is provided, that is not necessarily evidence of “melting viruses”.

Morever, as to whether this works just as well for Covid-19 symptoms, it is unclear which research the president was using to back his assertions. He would need to establish the temperature at which the virus melts and the steam inhaled would need to be at that temperature – and safely so. In any case, this would only work if the virus is contained wholly in the areas that will be reached by the steam. This is quite a stretch. The president is given to flying by the seat of his pants but he would do well to draw the line on public health during a pandemic.

In fact, claims that steam therapy can cure Covid-19 appear to be wholly unsubstantiated. This fact-check article, which examined claims of healing corona by steam therapy, quotes the American Burn Association and the US CDC. It concludes:

These posts claim that inhalation of steam from boiling water, sometimes with various infused ingredients, will kill the coronavirus. This is false. While it may help ease symptoms like congestion, steam inhalation also carries the risks of burns.

As a man of science (PhD in Chemistry), it is possible Magufuli disagrees with the conclusions above, as is his right. The appropriate thing to do would be to draw lessons from reputable research to counter the prevailing view on steam therapy before offering it as a safe remedy to his people in the midst of a global crisis. Certainly it would save the world a lot of money if we could all turn to steam therapy and vanquish Covid-19. There would be little (or much reduced) need for vaccine trials.

Hopes of anybody correcting the president’s pedestrian approach to public health medicine are dim. The shrinking democratic space in Tanzania is not helping and fear pervades all spheres of the society. Since Magufuli took over in 2015, intellectuals have been cowed and some are falling over themselves in order to be seen to agree with Magufuli. A surprising supporter of Magufuli’s steam therapy doctrine is Anna Tibaijuka.

Tibaijuka holds Doctorate of Science in Agricultural Economics from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences in Uppsala. She is a former under-secretary-general of the UN and also held the position of Executive Director of the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT) until 2010.

Between 2010 and 2014, she was an MP and also served as Minister of Lands, Housing and Human Settlements Developments. That she is highly accomplished is not in doubt. Her education and experience aside, Tibaijuka enthusiastically agrees with Magufuli and praises him effusively.

In this matter, the president has truly done something very good and I think he has reiterated our views. Now that he has spoken, people now know about the matter. With regard to steam therapy, it is possible for some people to get hurt but that would only result from failure to standardise steam therapy practices….steam therapy is scientific and was used mostly for the children and the elderly…if there are people ridiculing this, I would like to assure them that this is high school chemistry. The practice of our traditional medicine is not sorcery or witchcraft. It is science.

If truly science is a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe, then Tibaijuka has loosened that definition somewhat specifically with regard to the element of steam therapy in curing Covid-19 or alleviating its symptoms. How does Tibaijuka expect people to “standardise” steam therapy? It seems she has confused hallway banter with high school chemistry. Tibaijuka would definitely know that even the science community allied to her former employer also does not view steam therapy as the cure. Stamping it with the label of “African heritage” does not make it more effective.

Neither the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) nor the World Health Organization (WHO) suggest steam therapy with any ingredient as a cure for the coronavirus.

As if that is not enough, Tibaijuka took time to demonstrate how to use the various herbs, including some that need be stuffed into the nose. 

This should not surprise us much. Even in Magufuli’s cabinet, at various points , there have been ministers who are eminently qualified but  completely unable to rein in the boss’ madness. Since 2015, the Tanzania cabinet has been one of the most erudite in the East Africa region. Magufuli has enlisted distinguished academics who hold PhDs in Law, Psychology, Geology, Economics, International Relations, Forestry and Marine Engineering. At one point, there were 8 PhD holders in a cabinet of 19 ministers. The president’s leadership skills have not been able to bring out the best in these people or he has simply hired weaklings who cannot stand up to him and guide his agenda.

Suffice it to say that on Covid-19, Magufuli’s claims are long on unfounded hopes but short on testable explanations and predictions. As such the whole matter seems to be about believing the president simply because he knows best. He has made wild claims. They have not been tested and people who should call him out on this do not have the courage to do so.

It should not surprise many that Magufuli is given to cultic healing practices.

Barely ten years ago, hordes of people started visiting Ambilikile Mwasapile, better known as Babu wa Loliondo. Mwasapile, a retired pastor, is a medicine man who rose to fame by offering people mugariga. This was a concoction of herbs served in a cup, costing TZS 500 (equivalent to 21 US cents) that was rumoured to cure AIDS among other ailments. Mwasapile described how he started the practice of traditional medicine thus:

God appeared to me in a dream and told me people were dying of AIDS. He told me he would give me medicine which would treat AIDS. Then he showed me a tree. I was very surprised that God shared this with me. The white men had pursued a cure for this disease for so long, to the point of despair. I wondered how this tree would cure the disease.

I did not do anything for the moment. I waited until 2009. God appeared to me again and told me the time was ripe for me to begin the work he had assigned me.

Complying with God’s instructions, Mwasapile began his medicinal practice and people traveled from far and wide to partake of the miracle cure that was billed to be the silver bullet for all types of ailments.

Among prominent people who visited Babu wa Loliondo is John Magufuli and Babu wa Loliondo proudly shows journalists a picture of Magufuli drinking the miracle cure.

At the time, Magufuli was Minister of Livestock and Fisheries Development. He took time off his busy schedule to join the masses flocking for a cure. Outside, queues formed for kilometres and the sick were waiting by the roadside for days.

Before Tanzania put a stop to the sojourns for miracle cure, it was recorded that 52 people died as they waited for the cure – no doubt the tribulations of their journeys to Loliondo were too much. At one point, there were 4,000 vehicles snaking their way up to Mwasapile’s homestead and an estimated 24,000 people were in the queue for the miracle cure. Some died on the queue, waiting for a taste of mugariga, so near, yet so far.

However, these pilgrimages resulted in riches for Mwasapile. When Citizen TV visited him in 2019, his homestead had received a complete transformation: “from the mud and wattle single room house that used to be his house to a newly constructed three-bedroom self-contained bungalow. Parked in the compound is a truck and a four-wheel-drive land cruiser…”

It is unclear for what ailment Magufuli was seeking mugariga but it seems his belief in alternative medicine is unwavering.

Back to the president’s address, in delivering his final instructions, it was clear the prominent role the president has given to security teams at the expense of objective measures grounded in principles of managing a pandemic.

To my heads of defence and security, as I spoke to you and in accordance with the briefings you gave me, I am happy with the steps you are taking. You have informed me that you are treating Corona as a battle. Go and fight it so that you can save Tanzanian souls. Let us use all might and expertise so that no external enemy can ever use Corona as an entry point.

The Ministry of Health came second and essentially, Magufuli sees the role of this ministry as purely public relations.

Ministry of Health, continue driving cooperation. Continue educating the people. I have made a few organisation changes in the ministry in order to improve response and this will be fruitful.

As the president, Magufuli holds a position that makes people (want to) believe him. In a matter of life and death, he has chosen to be absent for 3 critical weeks, leaving his government rudderless. When he finally shows up, he offers solutions that are dodgy at best and potentially dangerous. He uses the same event to show where his focus is – using State apparatus to crush those who dare to hold him to account.

As if Covid-19 is not enough threat for Tanzania, the country has to deal with a pandemic whilst under the yoke of an incredibly shaky leadership. It is Magufuli’s private right to experiment with mugariga and steam therapy in his free time. Tanzanians however need to draw a line when his experimental approach sneaks into the policy for dealing with a pandemic that has so far claimed over 200,000 people worldwide. For now, if he does not abandon his (un)stable genius tactics, he remains a clear and present danger to himself, his country and the East Africa region. In the final analysis, this region can ill afford a black Donald Trump.

Remembering Kevin Carter

There is a WhatsApp forward that shows the photo of the Vulture and the Little Girl – Kevin Carter’s Pulitzer Prize winning photo from the Sudan in 1993. It reads

This was the Circulated Photo of a vulture waiting for a starving Sudanese girl to die so it can feast on her.
It was taken by Kevin Carter, a prolific photojournalist, during the famine of 1993 in Sudan.

This photo later won Kevin the Pulitzer prize for an ‘exceptional’ caption. However, Kevin later got depressed and took his own life four months after his world wide celebration as a skilful photographer.
He fell to depression.

His depression began when during an interview (a phone-in programme), someone asked him what happened to the child. “I did not wait to see what happened after this shot as I had a flight to catch…. “And the person replied, “I put it to you that there were two vultures that day; one had a camera”. This statement sank Kevin and as he constantly thought of the statement, he got depressed and ended his own life.

In whatever we do, let’s consider humanity first. Kevin Carter, may still have been alive today had it been he helped that little child. We have not truly lived, until our lives have become the stars and sunshine of someone else. If there is that one person you feel you can help in this period, start now tomorrow might be too late.

The story (in that forward) is incorrect on several counts. I recall reading the book “The Bang Bang Club” that features Kevin Carter and his workmate Ken Oosterbroek. It was made into a film in 2010.

  1. Very basic point. The child in the photo is not a girl. It’s a boy named Kong Nyong.
  2. The boy survived and was rescued by the UN. His father confirmed it.
  3. The photo was taken in 1993. Kong Nyong lived for a further 14 years and only died in 2007 after suffering from fever.
  4. Kevin’s photojournalism work undoubtedly drew attention to the Sudan and unlocked international aid, thus helping save many more lives.
  5. It is true that Kevin Carter committed suicide but that was not until 27 July 1994 – more than a year after taking the photograph.
  6. In his life, Kevin was a deeply traumatised person because of the work he was doing. He was in a lot of trouble spots, wars and strifes. For example, he covered the core brutality of apartheid such as “necklacing”, prior to his work in the Sudan. Imagine if your work was to document wars, violent killings and injustice all year round.  
  7. To cope with stress, he was heavy into drugs and he was suffering from depression.
  8. The death of his friend Ken (shot and killed) in April of 1994 did not help. It is at this point that finally the depression took over his life and pushed him to suicide 3 months later. He was financially broke, his body broken and his soul lost in a world that was neither seeing nor responding to his pain. Yet, that pain was there in the photographs he left us.
  9. His suicide note, available online is stark:

I’m really, really sorry. The pain of life overrides the joy to the point that joy does not exist. …depressed … without phone … money for rent … money for child support … money for debts … money!!! … I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings & corpses & anger & pain … of starving or wounded children, of trigger-happy madmen, often police, of killer executioners … I have gone to join Ken if I am that lucky.

This is the maddening world we live in – fake news and unverified information in social media. We can question Kevin Carter for not picking up the child forgetting that he probably also died questioning himself. However, when we twist a story so grotesquely just to fit a narrative, we fail to see that Kevin himself was a victim. Even more tragically, we riddle a supposedly good message with inaccuracies that detract from the pureness of the lesson that was supposed to be imparted – sympathy.

The assertion that Kevin Carter, may still have been alive today had he helped that little child is interesting but neither here nor there. The truth is, we just don’t know. If I had to guess, he would probably have lost his life in any one of the meaningless wars that dot the planet – and we would still have found something to hold against him.

Rather than paint Kevin as a vulture by changing the facts of this famous photo to show what a horrible person he was, perhaps we should ask ourselves the human cost of photojournalism.

How much do some of the people who work in the media go through? Some are woken up to go to accident scenes, bombed out places and morgues so that they can bring us our daily dose of news. The cycle repeats every day – it never stops. The deadlines are tight, the visible human suffering is unrelenting and the journalists do not always have the right support mechanisms. They are traumatised, living on the front lines, hardly ever switching off from the madness of the news cycle, each day more tragic than the previous one. It is intense and sometimes they may not make the right choices, simply because they are human.

In the final analysis, these journalists are also casualties of a horrible world and they work in the aftermath of selfish local and global interests that maim and kill the innocent, starve whole populations and leave newspeople to document their evil deeds.

EAC post COVID-19: This is Hardly the Time to Postpone Decisions

State bureaucracy can be irritating. Regional bureaucracy in “matters of mutual interest” can be downright maddening. The Business Daily reports that the East Africa Community postponed an important session that was to discuss regional response against COVID-19, including the fiscal, economic and social consequences on the EAC. The postponement was at the request of South Sudan.

In a statement to newsrooms, the regional bloc said the meeting convened to discuss the coronavirus pandemic via video conferencing had been postponed to a later date at South Sudan’s request

One can only hope that the new date for the meeting will be set soon and the meeting will actually happen this time and quick decisions will be taken and the decisions will be implemented uniformly and the progress will be tracked and that there will be constant and prompt changes if needed.

Too much to hope for? I am afraid so.

However the challenge ahead is grave and the secretariat has correctly identified things that need to be decided upon, quickly.

Ahead of the meeting, the secretariat had proposed an array of incentives aimed at boosting resilience of firms and cushioning low income households.

I suppose these are not high on the priority of some countries in this region. The assumption that EAC still has time to deliberate and take action is dangerous. Even at the best of times, our economies barely inch forward. That our fragile economies will be affected negatively is not a risk at this point in time – it is already a certainty and the EAC secretariat has already identified the areas that need solid actions.

The secretariat wants countries to institute stimulus packages to boost local production and promote imports substitution. It also wants them to apply monetary and fiscal measures to counter inflationary pressures

Whatever decisions are taken, partner states typically need more time to implement. That time is what we, collectively, just do not have. Each day that passes without clear decisions means prolonged suffering within EAC boundaries. The time for proper leadership is now and as expected, our leaders are failing us.

Kenya’s Economic Stimulus Package – The Devil in the Details

It is one thing to announce an economic stimulus package. It is quite a different thing to implement it. It is yet another different thing to measure the impact. With the COVID-19 starting to bite, President Uhuru Kenyatta announced a stimulus package as March drew to a close and a very uncertain April started. It aims to shield Kenyans during these tough times and also ensure that the economy grind ahead slowly and that when the dust settles (or reduces), we can still forge ahead.

100% per cent tax relief (monthly gross income of Ksh 24000/USD 225)

Kenyans in this category will save Ksh 1,414 (USD 13) and this should help them in purchasing essential supplies such as food. This should be enough to purchase 1 litre of cooking oil, 2 kilos of rice, 100 grams of tea leaves, 2 litres of milk, 4 kilos of maize flour, 2 kilos of rice, 1 kilo of sugar, 1 kilo of beans and 1 kilo of green grams. Work out how long a family of 4 will take to eat through that.

PAYE from 30% to 25%

A 5% reduction is better than nothing and that is where we shall leave it. To place the reduction in context, half of employed Kenyans earn less that Ksh 30,000 (USD 280) according to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics hence a 5% reduction is a couple of dollars for the month. The Kenyans in this range also happen to be the ones who need the relief most. The relief will however be perceptible for those who earn top-dollar. Well, those who have much will have more added unto them. Those who have little will have even the little taken away from them.

Resident Income Tax from 30% to 25%

Here, the effect will be felt. The income brackets are typically higher so a 5% reduction should be material. Again, it will go to those who do not feel the pinch too much. Perhaps the government was just balancing the optics to give the impression of fairness across board.

Turnover tax reduced from 3% to 1%

The moneyed political class that also controls the economy should be happy about this. It is a significant drop in tax and the president, his deputy, ministers and members of parliament have protected their enterprises well in this regard. This is where the big bucks game is played and shaving off 2/3 from the tax rate is sure to be appreciated wherever the rich and powerful congregate. The gap between the haves and the have-nots will remain…or even increase.

VAT from 16% to 14%

Some items were already VAT exempt and these are the ones that people need mostly for basic survival. Items such as milk, eggs, meat, rice, maize, bread, beans, unprocessed vegetables, tubers, infant food formula, medicines, fertilizers and sanitary towels do not attract tax. Utilities such as electricity fall into the VAT-able bracket so there would be some relief there. Essentially, this reduction is a feel good cut and it seems the more things change, the more they remain the same.

KSh 10Bn (USD 94.4 Mn) cash-transfer for Elderly and Other Vulnerable members of the Society

This is a good move. Hopefully the funds will be disbursed in a timely manner and will reach the intended recipients in a manner that makes a difference in their lives. In November 2019 it was announced that USD 87.4 Mn was transferred for the elderly and orphans. As such one would hope that the processes have already been fine-tuned to ensure that this wave of disbursements goes smoothly given the urgent purpose.

Pay Cuts for President, Deputy and Cabinet Secretaries

The President and his deputy will take an 80% pay cut while Cabinet Secretaries will take take a 30% pay cut. Past experience has shown that these declarations sometimes do not materialise. In any case, even if they come to pass, they are a drop in the ocean when we put government expenditure in context.

In summary, we should ask ourselves who feels the biggest pinch in a time like this. Conversely, who is getting the lion’s share of of the goodies in this package.

The informal sector (jua kali) that does not fall into the PAYE system and lives day to day is suffering. The low-wage earners are also in this boat. The jua kali artisans, for example, need to go to work every day otherwise they do not get to feed their families. They also happen to be the people who do not have fridges and such conveniences to stock up on supplies hence life for them is extremely difficult and they bear the brunt of this lockdown in a deeply personal fashion, much more than well-fed government mandarins can appreciate. Their food, transport costs, rent and other utilities largely remain unaffected by this package. Their flexibility in earning is curtailed. They truly are between a rock and a hard place.

There is thus a lot to say but little to celebrate.

Do we Still Need WHO?

The World Health Organization (WHO) has just celebrated its 72nd birthday but this septuagenarian is not aging in grace. The 72nd birthday has been “celebrated” in the midst of a crisis, a crisis which WHO handled in a manner that hardly reflected readiness and responsiveness. A cursory review of WHO’s past shows the organization is not set up to succeed in such a mission anyway and perhaps it is time we asked ourselves how important and relevant it still is.

#1 Little More Than a Bystander

In its own words, WHO aims to:

…address the underlying social and economic determinants of health through policies and programmes that enhance health equity and integrate pro-poor, gender-responsive, and human rights-based approaches

Secondly

…to promote a healthier environment, intensify primary prevention and influence public policies in all sectors so as to address the root causes of environmental threats to health. 

Everything mentioned above falls in the realm on national/global politics and the relevance and importance attached to them is dependent on the person/party in power. On the international stage, the global powers determine the priorities directly or indirectly. There is little that WHO can do if governments tell it to piss off. It should not surprise us that WHO Director General Tedros was praising China even when the prevailing sentiment is that China may not have been entirely open about COVID-19

We appreciate the seriousness with which China is taking this outbreak, especially the commitment from top leadership, and the transparency they have demonstrated

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General, WHO

#2 An Expensive Affair

In 2018, the budget for WHO was USD 4.4 Bn. Between 2019-23, WHO is asking for USD 14.1 Bn.  Despite budget slashes, WHO is a costly outfit which has 8500 employees scattered in 147 countries. It also runs 6 regional offices in Brazzaville, Copenhagen, New Delhi, Cairo, Manila and Washington. The levels of bureaucracy in such a monstrosity do not help much and they invariably result in unnecessary costs.

For example, the amount of money used in travel and related expenses has come into sharp focus in the past. Over USD 200 Mn is spent on travel and this is more than what WHO spends on mental health problems, HIV-AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined. Aljazeera reported in 2017 that the then Director General, Margaret Chan spent USD 370,000 on travel – she was fond of traveling first class.

It seems the lack of fiscal discipline was right from the top.

WHO declined to say if it paid for director-general Margaret Chan’s stay earlier this month at the 1,000-dollars-per-night Palm Camayenne hotel in Conakry, Guinea, but noted that host countries sometimes pick up the tab for her hotel stays

WHO vehemently denied, stating that Chan “strictly abided by WHO travel policies and less than half of its travel costs were on its staff”.

#3 Seven Decades Later,World is still Sick

Among the achievements in WHO’s portfolio are eradication of small-pox in 1979 and “near” eradication of polio in recent times. These are no mean feats but one would hope for more – we are talking 7 decades after all. With malaria still killing 400,000 annually and 90% of this is in Africa alone, these achievements pale in significance.

Whilst all the blame cannot be laid at WHO’s doorstep -African governments for example are not investing in public health as much as they should – such deaths are not exactly an indicator of success in global healthcare.

#4 Slow to Mobilize and Slow to Decide

A big organisation, which cannot speak truth to the powers, dependent on voluntary contributions and walking a myriad of tightropes in global politics cannot be nimble. This is the predicament that WHO finds itself in and the bigger it grows, the more rigid it becomes yet the threats it is supposed to address keep increasing in number and in speed.

COVID-19 has shown how slow WHO is. The first COVID-19 case in China was detected around 17 November 2019. Tedros deferred the declaration of COVID-19 as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) until 30 January, but he stressed that there was no need to “unnecessarily interfere with international travel and trade”.

#5 Slow to Learn and Adapt

Roughly 6 years ago, Jeremy Youde, commenting on the Ebola crisis, wrote:

The current Ebola outbreak in West Africa has caused more illness and death than any previous one, and we all hope that the World Health Organization is able to quickly and effectively coordinate a response to the current Ebola outbreak. We must remember, though, that many of WHO’s shortcomings in responding to this outbreak are the result of limitations placed on the organization. If we want a WHO that can respond more quickly and with more resources, the international community has to be willing to support such an organization

Between then and now, clearly the international community has not seen the need to free and reinvigorate the WHO and neither has WHO learnt how to adapt to the status quo i.e. that it is is not seen as an organization worth being given the reins to drive real improvements in public health. Strongly shackled, WHO is as reactive and as uncertain as ever.

COVID-19 Long Road Ahead for Kenya

In January, Kenya’s economy was projected to grow at 6.2%. The first case of COVID-19 was announced in March – on Friday the 13th. It has been a month of learning and unlearning and it looks as if we shall be in this state for quite some time. When the dust settles and it is time to take stock, we can almost certainly say 6.2% is not possible. The economy will take a big hit. More areas of our lives will also be affected, during the lockdown and in the aftermath.

Agriculture

Agriculture accounts for about 21% of Kenyan economy. Whilst some activities in farms will continue, the supply chain is suffering. Supermarkets, greengrocers and open air markets are all operating for shorter duration. Hotels and eateries all have reduced clientele and schools are closed hence bulk food orders are at all time low thus the income of farmers is affected. Many farmers rely on the sales of a season to prepare for the next season. If the cash flow is affected, reduced production can be expected.

With reduced activity on farms, food sufficiency is already a concern. The Strategic Grain Reserve is already running out at a time when we are not even sure how long these uncertain times will last. The Kenyan government is not known for good planning so it remains to be seen how well the needs of the country will be anticipated and met.

Horticultural exports already started suffering weeks ago. The Kenya Flower Council already announced that the industry was losing KSh 250 Mn (USD 2.4Mn) per day and about 170 horticultural farms were running low on cash hence laying off workers at flower plantations in places like Naivasha. Understandably, consumers are only worried about immediate needs such as food and safety in terms of health. Flowers are just too much of a luxury at this time.

The “Hustler” Sector

All businesses will be affected. The large businesses are getting some concessions from the government and although it is doubtful the impact of the measures announced by the president, some relief will nevertheless be obtained. Businesses were facing tough times even ahead of COVID-19 to such an extent that large corporates were announcing layoffs. The government had failed to create a conducive environment and now with the attention take up by this crisis, much less effort is being expended in fixing old issues.

The small businesses will take a harder hit. There are many Kenyans who run side hustles that may not even be registered or in the radar of the government. They however provide employment to their owners and a few employees. Whatever help the government is giving to big businesses will not get to these small businesses. Additionally, some of these hustles require flexibility in operating hours and with the ongoing curfew, those that cannot be done online will not last.

Travel and Tourism

Tourism is the third largest source of foreign exchange inflow. It is estimated that Kenya earned USD 1.6Bn last year from tourism. We can pretty much estimate it will not recover for much of 2020. Actually, make that 2021 and beyond. By the time the global economy picks up and people start traveling for leisure, this sector will be on its knees.

The post-COVID-19 travel arrangements are not clear at this point. Will countries require that travellers undergo mandatory test before/on arrival? Will there be requirements to quarantine? If there will be requirements to self-quarantine, how intrusive will such measures be and will they be to an extent that people will restrict travel to essential things? Also unpredictable is how long it will take before people feel comfortable to criss-cross the globe especially if new waves of COVID-19 pop up in different parts of the world at different times.

Education

The school calendar is already in tatters. Primary and Secondary school pupils went home right with a good portion of first term uncovered. Attending school in second term is looking unlikely and even if it happens, it might only be for the tail-end of second term.

The Ministry of Education is yet to provide guidance on the outlook for two final examinations i.e. the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) and the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE). Possibly, they are watching to see how things unfold. Either way, there will have to be changes on the school calendar and that will affect new classes in 2021 as well as university entry.

Politics and 2022 Effect

If there is one thing Kenyans have enjoyed for the past few weeks, it is the near 100% absence of our politicians arguing on TV, exchanging slurs on during funerals and generally irritating us all. When the dust settles, will they emerge out of the woodwork and start their games all over again?

One would imagine the politicians are sorely missing the spotlight and they will try to make up for lost time, what with the 2022 general elections around the corner? It does not portend well for us if a national leader is already saying they will resume the music. If we get caught up in their din, the road to recovery will be even longer.

A Tale of Two PhDs

Angela Merkel in this clip is what one would expect of a leader during a time like this – a firm grasp of the issue, a clear appreciation of her country’s capacity in tackling the issue, measurable indicators that would warn her if her government is not handling the threat well and a way forward that she can be judged against. The elegance is clarity of approach and confidence in understanding the numbers. There is benefit in approaching a problem that is rooted in science in a scientific way this way. Angela Merkel holds a PhD. Her thesis was on Quantum Chemistry- obtained from Germany Academy of Sciences at Berlin.

In Tanzania, we find Dr John Joseph Pombe Magufuli. His ardent supporters refer to him using his full name and prefixed with “Dr”. Actually, that is not complete. The first prefix is His Excellency. In response to COVID-19, he has asked his countrymen to continue praying. He will not shut churches because the virus “cannot exist in the body of Jesus Christ”. He is in a comfortable position – whatever he claims cannot be interrogated and anybody who calls out his nonsense will land in problems. Citizen TV has been taken off air for a week and is running an apology to the president. For the past few days, anybody switching to Citizen TV is met with a screen pouring out a heartfelt apology to His Excellency. The TV station made a grave mistake of of referring to Dr Magufuli’s tactics of fighting COVID-19 with faith as “defiant”.

I doubt Angela Merkel insists on being called Dr Merkel. One would imagine that she is secure in her credentials so it does not matter whether we call her Dr or not. That is what happens when you are busy defying limits in an excellent manner.

Back to His Excellency Dr John Joseph Pombe Magufuli, President of the United Republic of Tanzania (see, I am learning fast). He holds a PhD in Chemistry, obtained from University of Dar es Salaam. The title of his thesis, in all its heavenly glory is “The Potential of Anacardic Acid Self – Assembled Monolayer from Cashew Nut Shell Liquid as Corrosion Protection Coating“. It is a pity that he obtained a PhD in a scientific field without understanding the importance of scientific methods but that does not stop his alma mater from writing glowingly about him.

It is true we cannot hold Europe to be our example in everything because to do so would mean losing the context of our issues and there are definitely matters in which Africa needs to chart its own approach. However, that is the beauty of science. It is based on laws and principles that can demonstrated and we test our theories against them. Principles are timeless and they apply universally. Beliefs and superstitions, even when masked as devout religion, simply fail to measure up. If we are to deviate from doing things in an objective manner, then we must have a good reason and we must be able to live with the consequences.

There is a place for faith and those who seek help through their faith should do so (preferably in the confines of their homes) as other measures are being taken. However, 17 days after the first case of COVID-19 was detected in Tanzania, one would hope the good president would be doing much more than just calling for prayers.

There is another thing that does not lie – data. When all this is over, let us look at the data and evaluate these two leaders who both hold PhDs in Chemistry. We will see if it possible to defy science and when one does so, what sayeth the data? 

Different topics, different takes