By Peter Wanyonyi
For a while, a long while, the world seemed to at least be coming right. The Western world had abandoned its colonial, protectionist mindset. Europe was coming together, the 27-member European Union had knocked down its borders, travel was as free as it was during the Roman Empire. Even the British, with their insular island isolationism, realised the need to maintain some freedom of movement with the rest of the world post-Brexit. In America, Donald Trump forced a new NAFTA agreement on Mexico and Canada and, once they signed up, relaxed his ultra-nationalism and trade flowed again – the expansion of the American economy under Donald Trump’s three or so years in power is unmatched in the peacetime history of the USA. The prosperity didn’t stop there, though.
In Asia, China and South Korea led the way with massive, growing economies that helped buoy the sick men of that continent, Russia and Japan. Even little rats and mice like Vietnam and Indonesia got in on the act, skating along China’s Silk Road to a booming prosperity that many would never have dreamt of just a decade ago. As China grew richer – lifting half a billion people into the middle class over a couple of decades – its minimum wage rose, forcing many companies to relocate to Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines and other poor Pacific Rim nations, helping them in turn to create jobs for their people in the factories that were no longer viable in China.
Africa was not left behind. The Mother Continent is where all the resources lie. China’s rare-earth metals hegemony would be impossible without African minerals. Its leadership in electric vehicle battery manufacture would not happen without Congolese minerals and East African roads and ports, particularly Kenyan ones. And so, China poured money into East and Central Africa, targeting the vast mineral and oil fields of the Congo Basin. Kenya’s roads and railways today are some of the best in Africa – and that is no exaggeration. As the roads were built and the railways refurbished or built anew, all along those routes grew new businesses, service sectors were invented, markets popped up, everyone but the most slovenly made money. China and the West’s recent prosperity has been like a massive tide – and a rising tide lifts all boats.
Idyllic universe shattered
China’s relentless rise as a world power has seen it reach all corners of the world – laden with money and gifts. From South America to the Pacific, Australasia to Greenland, the Little Men from the East left no corner of the world untouched: they are not very good at personal relations and political correctness, but their ceaseless pursuit for national and ethnic glory has seen them pepper everyone with sly gifts of money and infrastructure in return for influence and a rising, critical stake in the most strategic corners of the world.
This idyllic universe – one of a rising and ambitious China allying with a resurgent Russia, a rich, lazy and spoilt Europe, a waning but still uber-powerful America and a fledgling, growing Africa – ticked on without a hitch for about two decades. Until December 2019, when everything started to go awry very fast.
In November 2019, a 55-year-old man in China’s Hubei province contracted a new pneumonia-like disease that looked disturbingly like the SARS epidemic which struck China’s Guangdong province in 2002-2004. But this new disease was faster to spread, and seemed to infect more people than SARS ever had. As with the SARS epidemic in 2002-2004, and the Chinese Bird Flu epidemic in 2013-2015, Chinese authorities sought to first deny, and then later to simply falsify accounts of the new virus. The Communist Party of China (CPC) is not known for its openness when dealing with issues that threaten Chinese economic fortunes, and it was felt – rightly – that revealing the truth about this new virus could lead to China being isolated as the rest of the world continued its economic growth. China thus simply kept mum as infected individuals from its epicentre, the mega-city of Wuhan, travelled around the world and spread the virus: from Italy to the US, from the UK to Australia, and to Africa. As the infections spread, the virus came to be known as Coronavirus, and the disease it causes – a flu-like cocktail of symptoms that are lethal for older people and those with underlying chronic conditions like diabetes, hypertension, obesity, heart disease, cancer and the like – came to be known as Corona Virus Disease-2019, or COVID-19 in short.
The World Health Organisation (WHO), which from 2006 to date has been led by two China-friendly individuals – first the Chinese doctor Margaret Chan Fung, and now the Ethiopian communist-turned virologist Tedros Adhanom – sought to downplay the seriousness of the outbreak. When in late December 2019 Taiwan sent the WHO an alarming letter reporting a SARS-like illness in Wuhan and indicating there was human-to-human transmission, the WHO ignored the letter, and then later released a statement on the Wuhan virus outbreak, stating, incredulously, “Preliminary investigations conducted by the Chinese authorities have found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of the novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) identified in Wuhan, China.”
In doing so, the WHO was literally parroting a briefing line from the CPC, which sought to minimise the dangers posed by the virus outbreak. The CPC also claimed that the virus had originated from one of Wuhan’s “wet markets” – livestock markets in which animals of all types, from bats to pangolins, are sold alive and then butchered and cooked for China’s unusual gastronomies. The wet markets of China are notoriously filthy, with the blood and body fluids of butchered animals flowing freely into the streets, where they mix with human excrement and animal urine and rain and mud and lots of other unclean stuff, creating a veritable petri dish in which some very nasty viruses and microbes can thrive.
But it appears this particular virus was not from the wet markets, despite China and the WHO’s spirited claims. A few miles from the Wuhan wet markets lies a super-secret high-security facility, the Wuhan Super-Lab. This is a heavily-guarded facility where the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, China’s military, has been creating and researching deadly pathogens and viruses for use as biological weapons. In its quest to match and then surpass America as a superpower, China has frequently declared that it is not bound by Western norms and ethics of war. Nothing is off the table, despite the international treaties the country has signed. And that includes deadly viruses, including coronavirus. It now seems almost certain that the pandemic started when an individual working at the Wuhan SuperLab got infected and, possibly unaware of this, went on to infect other people in and around Wuhan. From that point on, it was just a matter of time before we got to where we are. And where we are is a frightening place. Not so much because of the casualty rate – which is relatively sedate compared to other killer diseases – but because of the measures that governments have taken to combat the spread of COVID-19.
West caught flatfooted
The West eliminated most killer diseases in the 60s and 70s. Diseases like malaria, polio, dysentery, maternal mortality, Yellow Fever, Dengue Fever, Ebola and so on simply do not exist in the West, unless transported there in the bloodstreams and bodies of African and Asian immigrants to the West. Western citizens live long, rich, fulfilling lives, and the combination of a generous welfare state, excellent leadership, stringent citizens’ rights and a highly civilised mode of behaviour in public has resulted in Westerners being totally unused to anything that kills people in even moderate numbers. When COVID-19 arrived in the West, it caught Western authorities flat-footed. Confident and complacent in their safety from disease, and having complete trust – give or take – in their respective health systems, Westerners were horrified beyond compare to see people dropping dead in the middle of Italy’s COVID-stricken northern cities. As the disease spread through the West, panic set in. Fatality rates that were unknown outside Africa – hundreds dying every day in Italy and Spain and then the UK – spooked Western governments into taking social and political steps unheard of in peacetime. Entire countries were shut down. Social distancing laws were declared under emergency powers, and the economies of Western countries literally shut down. International travel died almost immediately starting March 2020. International trade slowed down to a trickle. The tight supply chains of the West – which rely on cheap products made in Asia and cheap foods from Africa – snapped as countries blocked air travel, letting in no one but their own citizens returning from abroad. But many of these returnees were trojans, carrying the infection themselves. They helped spread the disease even further in the West.
Africa has largely been spared this pandemic. African returnees also brought the disease to places like Kenya, but the virus has not spread in Africa at anywhere near the speed with which it did in Asia, Europe and America. Part of this appears to be latitude-related: the virus has also not had a very large impact in places with the same tropical latitudes as Africa: South America, the Caribbean, much of South Asia, Malaysia, and so on. In Australia, the hot, dry north of the country is unscathed, while the cooler, more temperate South-East of the country is groaning under COVID-19 pressure. In Italy, Europe’s COVID-19 epicentre, it is the cold north of the country, close to Germany and Austria, that has seen thousands of cases. The Mediterranean south of Italy, which is geographically part of North Africa, has seen few fatalities from COVID-19.
Small window of opportunity
As the West’s economies have been shut down, borders have sprung up where they had recently been knocked down. The EU’s countries have suspended free movement of people between themselves, and padlocked their entry points shut. The UK and France exchanged verbal blows over free movement: planeloads of Britons intent on holidaying in France were turned back by angry French authorities. Donald Trump closed his country’s borders first to the Europeans, then to the UK, then to everyone else. Stock markets crashed, and then fell some more. As Western governments imposed lockdowns on their citizens, forcing everyone to work remotely – bar medical workers – companies collapsed, their employees were made redundant, rents and mortgages were defaulted upon, and a full-on economic recession has descended on the great Western economies, the greatest economies the world has ever seen. Just three months ago, the world was looking forward to a decade of unprecedented economic growth. Today, an unprecedented economic depression is staring us in the face.
As with every bad thing that happens in the world, the effects on Africa and Kenya will at first be delayed, but without careful stewardship will balloon into unheard-of crises. COVID-19 itself may not have much of a direct impact in the tropics, and in Kenya, for Kenyans are not anywhere near as sick or as tightly packed in urban centres as Westerners are. The rest of Africa is even more sparsely settled, with the odd city here and there but no real mega-cities to help the disease spread as fast as it has in the West.
But this has not stopped Kenya and some other African countries from aping the West. Kenya has imposed a lockdown of its own on its people, and has had no option but to close its borders to visitors from outside Africa. This action, as well as knock-on effects from actions taken around the world, will have a devastating effect on Kenya and Africa. How bad the effects will be, we do not yet know – but the extent of the impact will be determined by the actions that African leaders take today.
One of the more obvious effects of COVID-19 has been the sudden uptick in digital connections in the West and in African cities. Everyone is sitting at home, and their only window to the world is through smartphones, televisions, the Internet, and computers. In the post-COVID-19 world, technology will thrive and will become even more dominant than it is now. American and Chinese companies, which dominate the technology landscape – Google, Apple, Microsoft, Oracle, Facebook, PayPal, Huawei, ZTE and so on – will become even more powerful, as their products and services become indispensable to people seeking to participate in the new, almost-fully-digital post-COVID economy. The pandemic will thus increase humanity’s dependence on technology, with vast and concerning implications. Cash transactions will quickly be phased out. Banknotes and coins are an easy medium for the coronavirus to use to spread, and many Western economies have already more or less banned cash transactions. Mobile money transfer, credit and debit cards and other electronic value transfer mechanisms will become even more ubiquitous in Kenya and around the world.
This in turn will allow governments to more easily use surveillance on their citizens. In places like Singapore and Israel, governments are using smartphones to track clusters of the virus by tracing who has been where. This has a dual use, though, as security agencies will also use the same information to place curbs on individual freedom and privacy. African governments are notoriously corrupt and authoritarian, and having the unfettered ability – and technology – to track citizens’ every movement under the guise of preventing COVID-19 spreading will lead to even more oppression than we experience today. As citizens are subjected to more and more surveillance and oppression – which is a given in Africa – mass dissidence will follow. Think Saba Saba riots on a continental scale. It will not be cinematic.
Kenya, and must of Africa, depends on tourism from the West and, increasingly, loans and business from Asia for a significant chunk of its economy. One of the realities of the post-COVID world will be heavily reduced air travel. African airlines will not survive: Africans don’t fly much to each other’s countries, and so African airlines rely on European and Asian passenger volumes, generally tourists, to survive. Without much tourism, and with African countries unable to afford massive financial bailouts, the likes of Kenya Airways, Ethiopian Airlines and South African Airlines, will first lay off thousands of workers, and then, still broke and making no money, will quietly collapse. This will be replicated in the entire economy, as exporters fail one after another and employees are rendered jobless. Many critical African sectors will be taken over by Chinese state investment corporations on the cheap, and African governments will only be too happy to have money from China propping up their economies. But it should be no surprise when, a decade from today, we see that Chinese companies and citizens dominate African economies and countries to an extent that has not been seen before. For Africa, and Kenya, the future today is almost fully Chinese. It will not be a future to be enjoyed by Africans.
Bigger healthcare divide
Healthcare in Kenya and the whole world will change. The modes of healthcare delivery in the Western world have changed to embrace more telehealth, and Western countries will not forget how they were caught unprepared by COVID-19. Expect massive investments in health in Western countries, as ICUs are beefed up, primary healthcare reach is increased, and governments go all out to reduce inequities in health outcomes among their populations – because they have seen that even one person falling sick with a COVID-like illness can result in huge populations being infected and the entire country being forced into lockdown.
In Kenya and Africa, the healthcare divide between the haves and the have-nots will grow wider. Our political leaders have traditionally neglected investing in healthcare, knowing that they could always fly to the West or to Asia for first-class treatment if they or their families fell sick. COVID-19 changed that: countries closed their borders, reserving their hospital facilities for their own citizens. For the first time ever, African elites could not flee to Europe to hide from an existential threat: they were forced to face down COVID-19 at home, in the countries that they have misruled for decades. As a result, many of our politicians literally went into hiding. Kenya’s infamous never-ending political rallies virtually died out, and the mudslinging that accompanies them has been missing ever since. Post-COVID, our politicians will be forced to set up glitzy healthcare facilities with excellent equipment – but these will be private hospitals for the deep of pocket, built with money stolen from the public healthcare sector. The public health systems in Kenya and Africa will suffer a double blow as their best medics are poached by Western countries eager to buttress their healthcare systems, and the healthcare options available to the ordinary African and Kenyan will, incredibly, end up worse than the dire state they are in today.
Legally, governments seeking to impose lockdowns have had to take on emergency powers that they do not normally have. But governments are power-hungry, and they never peacefully surrender powers that they grab. In Kenya and Africa, this will be taken to ridiculous extents. Already-brutal African regimes will become even more brutal. Some will collapse. Expect a return to the pre-1992 days in Kenya, with an imperial presidency (“we need a strong presidency to fight pandemics like COVID”) and endless struggles over political power. Legislation will be passed that entrenches executive rule from the centre, and politicians as well as governments will seek to survive through a combination of government terror and citizen cowardice.
Geopolitically, the worldwide chaos wrought by COVID-19 will see some major realignments. China has been looking likely to take over from America, but the virus and its resultant economic recession will see the Chinese economy take a significant hit both at home and abroad. China will seek to make amends by expanding its alliances, and likely by pegging back its bellicose stand in South East Asia as it seeks a more cooperative approach with its neighbours. This will be most significant in its relationships with Japan, India and Russia. The economic ill winds of the post-COVID world will see these three Asian giants cooperating closely, even though that seemed unlikely just a few weeks ago.
In Europe, democracy will take a back seat as strongmen emerge to lead populist parties that will be nationalist, opposed to foreigners and open trade, and fearful of the rest of the world. COVID-19 has exposed the EU’s fabled cooperation as a farce: it is now every one for themselves. No European country offered to help Italy, even as the Italians begged for medical supplies during their COVID-19 struggles. Instead, each EU country chose to hoard its own medical resources. As this happens, a tough, authoritarian streak has emerged in Europe: soldiers patrol the streets of Germany, France, Italy and other European countries. Police drones flying all over Spain report those breaking COVID lockdowns, and authoritarian emergency laws are enforcing what is effectively countrywide house arrest for entire nations. As Europeans accept these curtails on their civil liberties, they will increasingly shut up about abuses of civil liberties elsewhere. In Africa, it is only European – mainly British, Irish, and Nordic – diplomatic protests that have helped build our fragile press freedom and civil liberties since 1990. As these countries descend into curfews and stripped-back citizens freedoms themselves, Kenyans should not expect the UK to push our government and the Kenyan state to respect individual freedoms or uphold citizens’ rights. That in turn will be an invitation to Kenya’s government and State to get brutal with citizens, with unpopular laws passed with impunity and the likely Chinese owners of the economy not caring about Africans’ rights.
Some sectors will thrive. Insurance will take centre-stage, as risk management becomes a core activity worldwide. Kenya will be no exception. Companies and government sectors will develop and test contingency plans, with insurance services being critical to self-protection. The wider financial sector should be a beneficiary of this focus on insurance, and may help revive some of the sectors of the economy that will have been ravaged by COVID-19.
Create a restore point
Can Kenya avoid this bleak, dystopian future? Yes, we can. Our reliance on foreign tourism must be jettisoned in favour of a home-grown, more diversified tourism model. Instead of waiting for Europeans and Asians to come and gape at our wildlife, Kenya must encourage its own citizens to visit other parts of their own country. There is far more to see and experience in Kenya than just elephants and lions. For this new model to work, Kenya must diligently target and eliminate public-sector corruption and its twin evil, tribalism-nepotism.
Kenya must also work to reduce its exports exposure to Europe and Asia. Fellow African countries have growing middle classes that, although laid low by COVID-19, will be driving to grow again in the post-COVID world. We must look to trade more with Africa and less with the outside world. The artificial colonial borders that hem us in must be knocked down to enable free trade and controlled movement of people around the region and in Africa. Partnerships with the likes of Nigeria, Ghana, Ethiopia, Somalia, Mozambique and Angola will be required to ensure that we expand the borders of our markets and provide Kenyans with opportunities to grow within and outside Kenya.
Our politicians must resist the temptation to become more oppressive and more corrupt. COVID-19 has taught us that we are all the same, regardless of religion and tribe and political office: we are all terrified of death. And so, our leaders must work to bring us together, to shore up our civil liberties, to entrench the rule of law and to root out corruption and its attendant evils – so that Kenya and the region and, ultimately, Africa can not only survive but also thrive in the
post-COVID world. (
— The author is an information systems professional.