Published in the Standard in May 2020
Abraham Lincoln understood that if you would win a man to your cause, first convince him that you are his sincere friend. In 1842, the future iconic American president (1860 – 1865) was invited to speak to a gathering that hoped to help people considered degenerate alcoholics. The youthful Lincoln recognized the essence of empathy and emotional intelligence in the art of persuasion.
Ronald C. White Jr recalls in the 2009 volume titled A. Lincoln: A Biography, “He (Lincoln) argued that if you approach a man and ‘mark him as one to be shunned and despised . . . he will retreat within himself, close all the avenues to his head and heart.’” Lincoln found existing approaches to ‘helping’ alcoholics “repugnant to humanity, so uncharitable, so cold-blooded and feelingless.”
Now this is the trouble with the Kenya Government’s engagement with the public on the new coronavirus disease (Covid-19). It has been “repugnant, uncharitable, cold-blooded and feelingless.” From the very start, the government mismanaged the public relations function. It should not surprise them that things are not working out. Mombasa County Governor, Hassan Joho, has been screaming out his lungs almost to the point of bursting. He is frustrated that Mombasa Old Town residents have refused to take covid-19 tests. Now the town has been ringfenced.
As the governor shouted himself hoarse, his subjects watched him from the sidelines, unmoved. They were totally oblivious to the fact that that he was addressing them. Similarly, they also turned up “to observe,” when health workers came to their town, to administer vaccines. Some even picketed and chased away the health workers. Elsewhere, the sick are now avoiding hospitals. They don’t want to risk being tested and returning positive results. Others fear contracting the bug from the hospital. For, they have heard that you could get the virus in hospital.
Yet, while people fear going to hospital, they have not refrained from practices that could send them squarely into the virus. Orgies of binge drinking go on behind locked doors. The curfew is defied with glee. Little attention is paid to guidelines on social distance and wearing of masks. For boda boda transporters, and their clients, it is business as usual. This means carrying as many as four passengers, without any protection whatsoever.
Governor Joho is yelling at us, “In some countries people are begging to be tested! And here you don’t want to be tested! What is wrong with you? We will come for you by force! You are going to be tested, whether you like it or not! We are going to lock you up in your houses!” And that, precisely, is the problem. Kenyan authorities don’t know how to make citizens their partners. Their approach is full of threats, thunder and ‘big-man’ hubris. It’s the virus versus the hubris. Management of the quarantine in March and April sent out the wrong signal. Authoritarian orders from self-important, yet panicky ‘big people’ scuttled public trust.
Isolation and quarantine were equally cast as disgraceful punishment. The seeds of stigma were sown by state officials who mishandled returning Kenyans on Tuesday 23 March. They treated them like biblical lepers. The message was loud and clear. “Contract this thing and be doomed.” It was not enough that they stigmatized you. They also thundered about the costs, “You will be quarantined at your own cost!”
And you still expect the people to cooperate with the same authorities? Seriously? Citizen support was lost that early. Subsequent incursion into the mass testing arena has assumed the character of ‘rodent hunting.’ This has only heightened the mistrust and anger. This government needs to wake up to the reality that rolling out of any major public operation must have a realistic public communication strategy. That is why it is called a campaign. You don’t just suddenly burst into public space with draconian edicts. They will fail, for you have already drawn the battle lines. The authorities are on one side and the public on the other. The relationship is one of mutual mistrust.
Elsewhere, the government has not explored the best way to approach socially cherished and value-loaded cultural practices. In many Kenyan populations, funerals and burials, as well as religious activities, are rich with cultural values, superstitions and beliefs. You must address these values and beliefs as you plan your entry. Your mission is in trouble if you do not enlist the confidence and support of the custodians of hallowed cultural institutions – even if they are just superstitions. These are your entry points. Ignore them and fail.
Like the hairlines in the rock, trusted voices in the population are your points of least resistance, if you want to break into the rock. Penetrate them and your mission is on the road to success. If you try to replace these trusted voices with bureaucratic screamers on holiday from the political circuit, your message is in trouble.
The government needs to get back on its public communications drawing boards. It must seek to win the trust of the populations before its campaign can succeed. The message must not sound like a hostile order from a draconian authority. It will be resisted. The messengers must also be chosen carefully. They cannot be the regular braggers, who thump their chests. They can’t be fellows who come to brag about ‘the decades they have practiced medicine.’ Nobody wants to know that.
If this government will win the people to its cause, it must first convince them that it is their sincere friend. Moreover, it will remember that actions speak louder than words. How it treats people under quarantine is part of the message. So, too, is the ease of testing, especially for such populations as truck drivers and any returning residents. Angry and arrogant ‘big people’ must stay away. Violent policemen too.