State mulls lockdown as spread picks momentum

Tuesday, March 31st, 2020 00:00 |
President Uhuru Kenyatta. Photo/PD/File

The government was last evening considering difficult options to deal with the fast-spreading coronavirus that has now reached a dangerous level of being transmitted communally.

On a day that Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe admitted the virus is now being spread through community transmission, the government was toying with the idea of either locking down the entire country or the four counties of Nairobi, Mombasa, Kilifi and Kwale that have been declared hotspots.

“The disease is no longer being imported from outside but is here with us and spreading among ourselves,” Kagwe told a press conference at Afya House, Nairobi, yesterday.

He added: “This calls for a lot of personal responsibility among Kenyans in the fight against the disease.”

Experts warn that the virus is entering the most dangerous stage, where it is spread fast and to a greater number of people.

And with Nairobi leading the pack with 37 cases so far confirmed, Kagwe implored residents not to travel upcountry as they risked transmitting the virus to rural residents, many of whom are elderly.

And the government appeared to paint a grim picture of what to expect in the next 14 days, with the Director General in the Ministry of Health Patrick Amoth warning that preliminary modelling data showed that coronavirus cases could hit 5,000 by mid-April, and rise to 10,000 by end of April unless the government comes up with drastic intervention measures.

Various options

“However, in view of the recent directives on social distancing, travel restrictions and mandatory quarantine as well as other public health measures, there may be a delay in reaching the first 1,000 cases,” Amoth said.

Yesterday, Kagwe disclosed that eight more people had tested positive for the virus over the last 24 hours. Of the eight, one was under mandatory quarantine at a government facility, six were close contacts of the 42 cases reported while the last one was reported at the Aga Khan Hospital.

According to sources, the government is in a dilemma on whether to declare a national lockdown to curb the spread of the disease.

Should that happen, it could lead to a unprecedented economic crisis never witnessed in the country.

President Uhuru Kenyatta (pictured) is said to have yesterday morning chaired a meeting bringing together members of the National Emergency Response Committee on the Coronavirus and the National Security Council where various options were discussed.

Immediately after the State House meeting, Interior Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i chaired another meeting of the Intergovernmental Consultative Meeting on the Coronavirus Pandemic, which, among other issues, resolved to fully incorporate county governments in the government strategy.

“Both tiers of government shall fully support the ongoing engagement of local industry in mass production of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE),” a statement jointly signed by Matiangí and Kakamega Governor Wyclliffe Oparanya, the chairman of the Council of Governors, said.

With confirmed Covid-19 cases now standing at 50, the virus seems to be spreading wider, with disease control experts warning that the country should prepare for the worst.

Daily bread

As it stands now, the government has to decide whether to shut down all activities which would see the economy grind to a halt or put on a brave face against a disease that even countries with functional healthcare systems such as the United States, France, the UK and China, are finding insurmountable.

The first option of declaring a lockdown has been a headache for the government as it would mean locking Kenyans at their homes at a time when the economy is suffering from excessive borrowing that has seen Kenya’s external debt hit the ceiling.

Many Kenyans live on less than Sh100 a day and have to struggle to get their daily bread. Thus the government would be forced to provide them with food and other necessities for them to stay in their houses.

Currently the government does not have money and has asked the World Bank for financial assistance.

The second option of letting Kenyans to go on with their economic activities could be costly as it might lead to many deaths as the country does not have the financial, human resource capacity and medical equipment and facilities to deal with a big number of infections.

Uhuru is also said to be considering the third option of “localised lockdown” targeting the five counties which have reported cases of the Covid-19.

These are Nairobi which has 37 infections, Kilifi (six), Mombasa (four), Kwale (one), Kitui (one) and Kajiado (one).

Limit movement 

A source at the Health ministry said a shutdown in the five counties would involve stopping all movement of people in and out of the counties, a mandatory stay at home order to stop what medical experts call the community phase of spread of an outbreak.

This would result in a near economic shutdown of the country because Nairobi is the centre of commerce.

The first phase of the disease spread involved transmission from people arriving from foreign countries, while the second stage comprises people who come into contact with those from foreign countries which had reported cases of Covid-19.

Nairobi is the administrative capital and economic hub of the East African region while Mombasa is the gateway for all imports. Most traders in the region get their goods from the two cities.

Another possibility that the government is exploring is stopping all people from leaving and entering the city to stop the spread of the virus.

“We are in a stage where nothing should be left to chance. I think with the current trend, the government should consider locking down Nairobi and limiting movement of people coming in and leaving,” said Dr Felix Riunga, an infectious disease expert at Aga Khan University hospital.

Riunga warns that the government must be prepared to take difficult options during this stage.

“This is the most dangerous stage and in the event of the absence of drastic interventions, we are likely to enter a crisis level with many confirmed cases, deaths and many more people in quarantine,” he warned.

On Sunday, United Nations Conference on Trade and Development Secretary-General Mukhisa Kituyi said Kenya and other developing countries cannot on their own effectively cushion their people from the coronavirus and a lockdown could send the country into recession.

Speaking on our sister station K24’s Punchline programme, Kituyiasked the President to seek a debt moratorium.

“First of all, I don’t think any developing country on its own has all the right tools to cushion its people properl.

The President is well-respected internationally. He can be one of the leaders of an African campaigning for a moratorium on the repayment of multilateral and bilateral debts. Let China postpone the servicing of the SGR debt for example,” Kituyi said.

Job losses

Already companies have started sending workers home and the private sector has asked the government to provide incentives to help companies remain afloat and stop imminent job losses.

Kenya Association of Manufacturers has proposed tax cuts for small and medium enterprises (SMEs), reduction of corporate taxes from 30 per cent to 15 per cent for the next six months and zero-rating VAT on essentials goods.

The government’s last option, which is also proving difficult, is imposing a lockdown in Nairobi where majority of the coronavirus cases have been reported.

There has been reported cases of panic movements to upcountry by families living in Nairobi and Mombasa and this could further spread the virus.

Dr Willis Akhwale, the former head of Disease Control at the Ministry of Health, says that a total lockdown of either the entire country of the four counties is inevitable.

“We are in uncharted territory, we must move fast to contain the disease from getting into the community phase by starting random tests and within areas where cases of infections have been reported,” he said.

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