Mutahi Kagwe looks back at his time in government

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Former Health CS Mutahi Kagwe [Samson Wire, Standard]

Former Health CS Mutahi Kagwe became famous during the COVID-19 pandemic. On June 19, he was a guest on Spice FM’s ‘Situation Room’ and spoke about his tenure in the ministry and the ongoing debate on Finance Bill 2024.

Navigating Tough Times: Reflections on Leadership During the Covid-19 Pandemic

It was a very difficult period. I was 12 days into the ministry when the first case of Covid-19 emerged. Even so, we were aware of the disease due to the situation in Wuhan, China, and the severe impact it had on Italy and Europe. We knew that difficult decisions lay ahead. When I inquired about the infectious disease bed capacity in the country, I was informed we had only eight beds available, yet thousands of people would need them.

It was a tough time, but we had a very strong team. Teamwork was crucial, and the President guided us in making the necessary decisions. It wasn't just Mutahi Kagwe making unilateral decisions. Even when Europe made different decisions, we tailored our approach to fit our environment. Sometimes I received calls from ambassadors questioning certain decisions.

What stood out then?

Teamwork, the use of experts, and a nation that listened. Although some individuals did their own thing, the majority of people listened. Communication was also key. We knew there was a lot of panic in the country and that people needed information. Since this was a science-based issue, not a political one, we had to communicate effectively. We often invited other Cabinet Secretaries to make specific announcements. For example, during Islamic holidays, we invited CS Najib Balala to give communications because his messages were better understood coming from a Muslim rather than a Christian. We also had to navigate sensitive cultural issues and put in place various communication systems for people to understand. CAS Mwangangi spoke to the youths, as she was closer to their age and they listened to her.

What do you think about the changes taking place in healthcare?

I don't like to criticize the office I once held, but I assume they are operating on philosophies and policies that address today's challenges. It's important to understand the end goal to start planning effectively. Community health workers are crucial because they can handle minor issues that might otherwise overwhelm hospitals. We need a policy where healthcare services are brought to the people, rather than the other way around. Family doctors should proactively visit patients, such as pregnant women, rather than wait for them to come to the hospital.

How was that supposed to happen during your time?

There must be a common agenda between the government and citizens, working together. Currently, it seems citizens and the government have different perspectives, and there's a lack of communication about the government's intentions.

The ongoing debate about the Finance Bill and taxes?

People have to pay taxes because that's how the government functions. However, if you want me to pay taxes, you need to convince me why. In 2002, when Kibaki took over, things were dire. We were borrowing a lot of money, but his strategy was to close the gap between borrowing and domestic production, and people voluntarily paid taxes.

Why?

People knew exactly where their taxes were going. If you communicate clearly about the purpose of taxes, like job creation, people will understand. Currently, young people are on the streets because they have lost their jobs and cannot afford necessities. This is why many grown adults still live with their parents—they cannot afford to move out. The government should address these issues. If you explain why you are taxing people, they may accept the tough times if they understand the reasons. However, if people are losing their jobs and the price of bread is rising, it becomes unbelievable.

What's the best way to communicate this?

Public hearings need to be meaningful. We need to listen to people's concerns. Proposing taxes on bread, and diapers, and then removing them to seek praise is unfair. Such taxes seem to be a move for political glorification rather than genuine necessity. Taxing essential items like bread, diapers, and sanitary pads, especially when people are already struggling, is unacceptable. This approach seems like a political manoeuvre that has backfired.

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