What you need to know:
- Restricted mobility has pushed us to a more virtual existence at personal and professional levels
- The virus is forcing Kenyans to rethink their 56-year-old experiment with free-market capitalism
In late March last year, President Uhuru Kenyatta imposed a second indefinite and localised lockdown to contain the Covid-19 pandemic, which has turned our world upside down. As the epidemic entered its second cycle, the country’s infection rate jumped from 2 per cent to 22 per cent between January and March this year.
The sheltering moment created by the lockdown offered me an opportunity to read and reflect on the impact of the pandemic on Kenya’s decaying capitalist system. Scholarly works on the impact of the pandemic on the capitalist order is scanty.
The latest of these is Scott Galloway’s new book, Post-Corona: From Crisis to Opportunity (2020), which I avidly read and reviewed. In the book, the American entrepreneur and professor of marketing examines the winners and losers from an epidemic that has devastated the world’s ever-largest virtual empire.
But it is the Canadian author, Naomi Klein, who has illuminated the familiar and insidious neoliberal patterns spreading along with Covid-19. Springing from her book, The Shock Doctrine (2007), Klein relaunches the term “disaster capitalism” to show how powerful governments and the global elite are exploiting the pandemic in a new version of “coronavirus capitalism” signified by vaccine profiteering.
Scholars agree the epidemic may not be generally an agent of change. It has, however, revealed and accelerated political and economic trends that were already underway. Sadly, many of these trends are negative – such as inequalities that weaken Africa’s capacity to recover and thrive in the post-corona world. Second, the virus is creating opportunity. It was John F. Kennedy who popularised the cliche: “In crisis there is opportunity”.
The virus is forcing Kenyans to rethink their 56-year-old experiment with free-market capitalism. It has put capitalism on the cusp of radical change. In imposing the second lockdown, Kenyatta found himself on the horns of a dilemma: balancing between lives the economy.
Severely restricted mobility has pushed us to a more virtual existence at personal and professional levels and changed how we learn, work and interact. It has also changed the concept of workplace, turning bedrooms into offices. Further, it has caused generational raptures, pitting the young against the old and creating gender and class inequalities. Business meetings have gone virtual, teachers are online educators and social gatherings have moved to the screen.
Uncharted virtual realm
As the epidemic pushes our capitalism to the largely uncharted virtual realm, it is producing winners and losers and demanding innovative responses. Among the winners are businesses in the technology sector. Globally, the pandemic has expanded businesses providing conference software (zoom) and online supplies (Amazon). Galloway tells us that it took Apple 42 years to reach $1 trillion in value. But it has taken the company 20 weeks in 2020 (March-August 2020) to accelerate from 1 trillion to $2 trillion!
In the medical sector, the embrace of telemedicine has reduced the costs and burdens of broken and exploitative health systems. The pandemic has also improved nutrition standards, with food delivery firms increasing supplies of fresh local farm produce.
Additional Covid-19 restrictions may, however, heighten food insecurity. It has already hit businesses that depend on in-person interactions, such as restaurants, travel, sports, airlines, hospitality, events, live entertainment and universities.
While capitalism is said to have no equal as a system of economic production, the system has no moral compass. In the age of the virus, the rich are getting richer. The top 10 per cent are living their best lives. Lower-income households have been hit harder by job losses and pay cuts.
Lower university fees
According to the Federation of Kenya Employers, 604 firms sent workers home between March and August 2020. The Kenya National Bureau of Statistics estimated that around 1.7 million people have been made redundant due to the outbreak.
Kenya accumulated a debt of $3.7 billion in the first 90 days of the outbreak. On the plus side, virtual education could lower university fees and shore up admission.
The virus has, however, greatly assaulted the middle class, widely considered a bastion of democracy. The 1980s neoliberal reforms of capitalism dismantled the welfare state. The virus has optimised on weak government institutions and collapsed private sector to spread, thriving on decades of the dominance of the false liberal creed that a “big government” is evil and the private sector is king.
The liberal orthodoxy privileged individualism over collective consciousness and patriotism. It undermined civic duty and responsible citizenship, which is now needed to combat the virus. Sadly, Kenyans can no longer bear minor inconveniences for the common good. They have not heeded the call to cancel events, close businesses or even wear masks.
And while we are yet to see the light at the end of the Covid-19 tunnel, one thing is patently clear: We cannot go back to the pre-pandemic model of capitalism.
The second lockdown must, however, save both lives and the economy. Otherwise we risk giving wings to the “hustler rebellion” and creating fertile grounds for a class revolution.