How have politics and politicians contributed to the spread of COVID-19? This is the one question that needs to be explored, hence the purpose of this article. The pandemic has had many other factors that have led to its spreading, but politicians and politics, in general, have also played a part, especially when it comes to interactions with the public or the communication of information and data related to the disease.
The Kenyan government has established several emergency measures to combat the effects of COVID-19. These measures include lockdowns, travel bans, social distancing, among others. There have also been economic measures meant to cushion the low-income households from the economic shocks of the disease such as tax reliefs and social protection. Most of these measures have been driven by politics and politicians.
However, despite these measures being put in place, and being enforced upon the public, politicians have continued to flout them. This echoes the (in)famous declaration made by the pigs in George Orwell’s Animal Farm that “All animals are equal but some are more equal than others”. It shows the hypocrisy by the government in proclaiming that the COVID-19 measures apply to everyone equally, but then gives the power privilege to the small group of (elite) politicians to break them with impunity.
This selective application of COVID-19 measures has put the rest of the public at risk and created an enabling environment for the spread of the disease.
Last year, clinical officers accused politicians of ignoring the COVID-19 pandemic. The clinical officers laid blame squarely at the top leadership of the country for throwing away the measures and policies set up to combat COVID-19 which in turn sets a bad example for the public to lower their guard. Due to the politicians ignoring these measures, the public followed suit and stopped washing their hands, wearing their masks, social distancing among other measures.
The issue that raises alarm is that the politicians were even ignoring these measures against COVID-19 when the second wave of the disease infections hit, which was considered the worst wave during the pandemic. Not only did the politicians put the public at risk of the spread, but they also put health workers at risk who would, in turn, would have to take care of the increased infections with limited medical resources such as protective equipment.
In November 2020, President Uhuru Kenyatta suspended all political gatherings and rallies for 60 days. This was taken as a new measure to curb the spread of COVID-19 which had surged in the previous month.
“Anyone wishing to hold such meetings should do so in town halls and must observe all COVID protocols, including limiting the attendees to (the) one-third seating capacity of the hall…”
President Uhuru Kenyatta
The suspension of political gatherings came after several politicians continued to ignore them with impunity. In September 2020, the Kapseret MP led a demonstration in Eldoret town where hundreds of protestors took part with many of them having no masks at all. Despite the police being present and themselves having masks on, they did not bother to enforce the same on the protesting crowds. This shows how lax the enforcement of the COVID-19 measures has become.
Emurua Dikirr MP also led a procession to his rural home which drew a crowd that had no masks on or adhering to the rule on social distancing. Raila Odinga also addressed a public meeting in Kwale and Taita Taveta counties. Deputy President William Ruto also addressed a rally in Kisii during the same period and neither his entourage nor he wore any masks, let alone the mammoth crowd that gathered around him.
Even the President himself has not been spared in flouting the COVID-19 pandemic policies and measures. He was often seen addressing public gatherings in different areas as his convoy passed. This is despite his own Ministry of Health imploring politicians severally to refrain from political gatherings which fell on deaf ears. The Ministry saw these gatherings as one of the issues that rolled back the gains made to contain the disease.
“Political gatherings that draw large, jostling crowds, which is an ideal condition for mass transmission of the virus…are rolling back the gains we have made since we began fighting this pandemic.”
Dr. Rashid Abdi Aman, Chief Administrative Secretary, Ministry of Health
There was also concern at the time that, since the frontier for political gatherings was moving away from the counties that had hit their COVID-19 peak such as Nairobi, Mombasa and Kiambu, the probability of increased transmission was high when the containment rules were disregarded. The second wave of the disease, which would see increased surges in infections, would mean that a population that had not been previously exposed to the disease, would see a sudden surge in infections as the virus moved to the population.
Raila Odinga and Deputy President William Ruto are again seen flouting the COVID-19 measures. This time, Raila Odinga is seen addressing attending a church that has no regard for social distancing and wearing of masks by the congregation. He later goes around the estates addressing the public without a mask himself and the crowds follow suit without proper wearing of masks and social distancing. The Deputy President is seen attending a political rally in Kajiado while those ushering him in have no masks, including prominent politicians, and no regard for social distancing.
Even the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) has contributed to politicians violating the COVID-19 guidelines set up by the Ministry of Health. The famous cartoonist, Gado, portrays this well in satire showing how politicians do not really care about COVID-19 but only pushing their political agendas in BBI campaigns.
Yet, what all these cases of impunity show are that politicians are failing Kenyans. Kenyans look up to their leaders to set an example, and when the politicians disregard the COVID-19 guidelines, then the public follows suit. And indeed, the people had relaxed from following these measures which led to a surge in infections towards the end of last year.
Health Ministry officials have also not been left behind in ignoring social distancing measures during press conferences as evidenced in Othaya Hospital, Nyeri.
Political decisions have also led to the spread of COVID-19. Failure to monitor the usage of COVID-19 funds has led to corruption and misuse of millions of dollars meant for buying COVID-19 supplies. Evidence has also been uncovered tenders to supply these medical supplies being given to politicians, or politically connected individuals and businesses.
Due to poor politics, health workers continue to work under risky conditions due to government neglect. Some have also lost their lives to COVID-19 in the line of duty. All this is due to the failure by the government to supply public protective equipment (PPEs) to the health workers with the shortage of putting their lives at risk. The result has been the health workers going on strike, yet the government has not been concerned with this, only drumming up support for BBI and ‘bribing; members of the county assemblies with billions of shillings in form of car grants to pass the BBI Bill.
It is also due to poor political decisions that there has been a shortage of mass testing equipment for COVID-19. This has been mostly felt at the counties which have limited capacity in their health facilities to respond to COVID-19 and limited resources. This has meant that the surge in COVID-19 infections has been inevitable.