To reopen or not? The big coronavirus question

Tuesday, June 2nd, 2020 12:00 |
President Uhuru Kenyatta. Photo/File

The month of May marked a milestone in the tragic trajectory of the coronavirus pandemic, with more than five million cases recorded worldwide.

By May 31, 367,255 people had died out of the 5,939,234 (I,716,078 in the US) global caseload, while 2,655,620 had recovered. Africa passed the 100,000 mark.

During the month, I was among nearly 10,000 journalists from more than 160 countries who attended an online course on what has been described as the greatest story in 100 years.

The Journalism in a pandemic: Covering Covid-19 now and in the future course was organised by the Knight Centre for Journalism in the Americas at the University of Texas at Austin, in conjunction with the World Health Organisation, UNESCO and UNDP.

Such is the prominence with which the media has been thrust in the frontline of the global fight against the most frightening common enemy this century. 

The end of the course and its encyclopaedic curriculum on the pandemic coincided with the epic coronavirus saga debate – how and when to reopen the economy and society while protecting public health?

Returning to work and class slowly and safely is the next challenge facing people, governments, businesses and learning institutions across the globe. Kenya is no exception.

How and when we can preserve jobs, improve the social net, provide equitable healthcare, address the needs of vulnerable populations, and reopen schools. Providing answers to these questions demands intense probity.

Scientific advice is extremely important when political forces and private interests push for the reopening of businesses, schools and other gathering places. 

This weighty matter cannot be determined simply by common sense or political considerations, but on facts, circumstances and informed decisions.

Alarm has mounted after some countries eased restrictions, only for spikes in new coronavirus cases to lead to a hasty re-lockdown.

In the United States, President Donald Trump has been leading the push for reopening, a stance opposed by his Democratic Party challenger in the November elections, Joe Biden who tweeted: 

“Mr President. This is not an economic crisis; this is a health crisis. If you do everything that’s required to take care of the healthcare crisis, the economic crisis will go away.”

Coronavirus is currently the biggest issue, with serious implications for public health. The government must only rely on scientific advice to avoid pursuing policies that put the people at risk.

This means reviewing some decisions in response to the pandemic that did not seem to make sense or were made too late.

Wananchi deserve to be informed of the science as soon as it is available.

Dr Tom Frieden, an internal medicine, public health, epidemiology and infectious diseases physician and a former US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) director, wants an effective and adaptive response that balances between protecting the academic, the epidemic and economies.

“This is a viral pandemic. It’s very, very difficult to confront, and it requires a comprehensive response,” says Dr Frieden, who is now running the Resolve to Save Lives group.

He warns those lobbying for hasty reopening that any place where people congregate is a potential explosive venue for the spread of the coronavirus. 

For Africa, there is no good answer to what to do about urban slums, where sanitation, hand washing and crowding are all fertile ground for the exponential spread of the virus. [email protected]

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