Should President Uhuru re-open Kenya’s economy today?
Due to perceived poor sanitation and health services, some people thought Africa was doomed the moment coronavirus brought Asia, Europe and America to a near standstill.
Researchers all over the world have paid close attention to the pandemic; hoping to prevent it, find a vaccine or even cure it. Because health is key to our existence, there is as much health-related information about the virus as there could be.
We are alive to the statistics and scale of the pandemic worldwide and are as well updated every day in the media about the virus trends in Kenya and across the world.
In the period after, and regardless of whether the virus is contained sooner or later, the world community will have experienced unprecedented disruption in many facets of life.
Today, however, countries all over the world are grappling with how to balance between lives and livelihoods in the face of Covid-19.
To save lives, we must do things which are bad for livelihood, and vice versa. But we all know suspending livelihoods in order to save lives doesn’t make sense at all.
There are those of us who are persuaded that restriction of movement, border controls, enforcement of curfews, closure of certain categories of businesses or closure of schools can only worsen the lives of people.
In fact, the more we lockdown, the higher the urgency to open up the economy gets. This is why many countries are going for the trade-off between lives and livelihoods.
Since Covid-19 seems the new normal, communities are now debating their survival options, knowing it will be a while before the virus is brought under control.
From these debates, concerns emerge regarding the economy, health, security, hunger, survival in the informal sector, provisions, life support systems and so on.
This kind of debate is especially important for citizens of countries like Kenya where the virus has been less severe than predicted.
With 154 deaths from Covid-19 as of July 4, 2020, the popular impression is that we have contained spread of the virus, thanks to a raft of measures announced by the government.
Though reported cases have increased with more tests, there are more recoveries each day; and so, we have no reason to believe the reported active cases will result in death.
Without understating the Covid-19 crisis in Kenya, there is no indication from data that the virus will spread exponentially any time soon.
The fact is, the virus will be here with us for some time, and so it would be foolish of us not to make plans to normalise.
The longer we wait, the more desperate our situation will become, perhaps collapsing the economy with it. A case in point is the dilemma we now have with school re-opening.
It has been months since we closed learning institutions in a panic, but now preparing to reopen after fulfilling certain safety conditions in schools.
To normalise, we must revive the economy. Millions of jobless Kenyans with no health cover and who live in crowded neighbourhoods will be the worst hit if we do not open up the economy.
Though scholars, medical and public health experts around the world insist economies are secondary to lives, and that reopening economies at this time would be disastrous, the toll of unemployment, destroyed livelihoods, and desperation occasioned by Covid-19 interventions cannot be ignored.
Even when we still don’t have accurate dynamics of Covid-19 burden in Kenya – because we are yet to test big numbers, the right thing to do would be to consider the “right way” to reopen the economy.
This is why we are waiting for the government to provide guidelines on how to go about reopening.
With strict precautionary measures, the economy can be reopened, the GDP will grow, and livelihoods will thrive again.
The world is full of examples in Asia, Europe and the US where a great deal of economic activities have normalised despite devastating loss of lives to Covid-19.
Across the border, we can learn from Tanzania whose mitigation approaches against Covid-19 may have been controversial but effective nonetheless.
There are case studies as well of progressive multilayered approaches to reopening the economy that we can learn from. Bottomline, we can contain the virus and let the economy grow at the same time.
— The writer is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Linguistics, Languages and Literature at Jaramogi Oginga Odinga University of Science and Technology
President Uhuru Kenyatta’ speech today is highly anticipated. The big question of course is should he open up the country or not. There have been restrictions of movement from the hotspot counties of Nairobi and Mombasa and a countrywide curfew.
Covid-19 though should be a wake up call to the country that health is the economy.
The pandemic has led to the closure of the economy, so to speak, due to the unpreparedness of the healthcare system to deal with a surge of patients.
Moreover, the long-term effects of Covid-19 on individuals is still not certain. The approach taken thus, is best to avoid it.
Unfortunately, the virus will be with us for a long time and it is imperative that the government puts in place measures to ensure that reopening minimizes the risk of infection and that should one get infected and require healthcare, then they can be treated.
For a long time, doctors in Kenya have agitated for quality healthcare for all. The industrial action by doctors in 2017 that culminated in the jailing of seven doctors of our umbrella trade union has been vindicated by the virus.
The doctors were asking for improved public healthcare that would mitigate such pandemics and many more in future.
To open the economy thus, several measures must be in place to avoid it becoming a health catastrophe due to an accelerated rise in infections, and an increase in patients requiring healthcare. Reopening thus has to be a stepwise phenomenon.
I am the secretary to the Kenya Medical Association Covid-19 Response Committee and we meet weekly to deliberate on issues related to the pandemic and have come up with a proposal that must be implemented before the economy is opened up.
They are what you will call irreducible minimums as the President explores the fearsome possibility of opening up the economy.
First, we demand that he was designate Covid-19 isolation and treatment facilities to cover all counties as well as recruitment of additional health workers to address the shortfall as we prepare for the possibility of a surge in transmission when movement restrictions are lifted.
We also think that the parent ministry should institutionalize training for health workers on management of this pandemic in addition to coming up with regulations that allow for home-based quarantine and isolation where possible.
Further, efforts must be made to ensure a secure supply chain of adequate Personal Protective Equipment and other supplies for our health facilities.
Moreover, the government should consider reopening health training institutions with the appropriate protections to support the health system at this time of great need.
And we should fully reopen our hospitals and health facilities to deal with other health conditions that are prevalent in the country.
Besides hospitals, the other major challenge will be the re-opening of schools which remains in limbo and a major migraine for Education Cabinet secretary George Magoha. The issue should be well thought out.
The government must ensure that learners have access to health services, including medics designated to take care of the learners should they fall ill.
Equally, Magoha must ensure that they have access to sanitary facilities and have regulations in place to ensure health risks to learners are minimized
In the long term, Kenya should explore ways of establishing a centralized mechanism for managing human resources for health in order to ensure that in future, decisions such as those we propose in the short term can be made by a competent authority that has the necessary information to do so.
This would be achieved through the establishment of a Health Services Commission.
Even as the country awaits the President’s decision, our view is that we should not fully re-open the economy today.
A spot check on the counties shows that they have not engaged the necessary health workforce to run Covid-19 services as well as routine medical services.
And schools should definitely be the last institutions to be opened. Opening up schools is literally opening up the economy as students traverse the whole country to get to their schools, thus transport will need to have been opened and eateries will also need to be functional.
Most importantly, though is that the health system should have been made robust with adequate qualified human resources, personal protective equipment and medical supplies.
We need to build back better by ensuring that during Covid-19 we get the healthcare system correct once and for all. — The writer is Secretary General, Kenya Medical Association