Kenya’s cabinet secretary for health, Mutahi Kagwe, is an unhappy man. A week after the government tentatively allowed restaurants to reopen from 5 a.m. to 4 p.m., he seems surprised that Kenyans are actually patronizing these establishments and having beer with sausages. While bars remain closed, eateries can still serve alcohol to their clients. Ordering a token meal with one’s drink has long been one of the tactics used to get around the country’s ill-considered, poorly drafted and widely ignored law restricting the sale and consumption of alcohol, which was enacted in 2010.

Kagwe’s 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. But using the criminal-justice system to address a public-health crisis has unintended consequences.

This approach leaves Kagwe’s initiatives mired in the contentious relationship the criminal-justice system, and especially the police, has historically had with the public. Kenyans have come to see the advice dispensed by the Ministry of Health as the latest excuse for the perpetuation of decades of predatory policing.

Unschooled in the principles of public health, the police seem to have completely misunderstood the objective. Rather than encouraging compliance, officers have resorted to type, employing the blunt implements of brutality and arrest to expand opportunities for the extraction of bribes. This results in perverse and dangerous outcomes, where police force people into crowded vans and cells 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.

Another characteristic of the government’s response has been the branding of those who circumvent restrictions as lacking in personal discipline. By attributing citizens’ choices to a failure to control impulses, this language refuses to engage with citizens’ gripes and instead assumes they cannot have legitimate reasons for disagreeing with the government’s policies. Kagwe’s repeated decrying of Kenyans’ supposed “indiscipline” has grated on the public as a result.

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 while also urging citizens to stay indoors. Its utilization of funds for the coronavirus response has been shown to be less than prudent. It has also prioritized paying hundreds of millions of shillings in unconstitutional retirement benefits to politicians over repatriating citizens stranded abroad, paying the costs of putting people in mandatory quarantine and fulfilling a promise to provide free masks to the poorest Kenyans.

Kenyan media reporting, meanwhile, has tended to repeat rather than question the government line. There have been few attempts to distill the reality behind the numbers announced at the daily briefings and 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. “Trust and obey” has seemed to be the overriding message.

Many have pointed to the success of South Korea and Taiwan as evidence that compliance with government directives is critical to defeating the coronavirus. But the trust in governments as custodians of the public interest is high in those societies — as is the ability for citizens to hold errant politicians to account.

In Kenya, on the other hand, more than a century of humiliation, oppression and robbery — first by the British colonial authorities and then their successors in the independent government — has not left the populace so sanguine about the role of the state in public affairs. Government actions are now transferring this lack of trust to the health system, resulting not just in defiance, but also in people staying away from health centers and being fearful of testing.

This history cannot be wished away. The covid-19 crisis will “illuminate the core values governments hold,” writes Ruth Ben-Ghiat, and under its harsh light, the Kenyan government’s contempt for its citizenry becomes apparent. This will continue to color the citizens’ responses to its exhortations, threats and punishments. And until Kagwe and his colleagues can learn to talk to Kenyans rather than at them, to address them as adults and to treat them with dignity, there will be more frustrating days ahead for them.

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