Uhuru’s delicate balancing act as economy hurts, virus bites
As the deadline to the Covid-19 containment measures comes up tomorrow, President Uhuru Kenyatta finds himself in a tough balancing act on whether to give priority to the country’s economic revival or scale up actions to stop spread of the pandemic.
Indeed, the President must make the hard decision, whether to reopen the country’s struggling economy after two months of partial lockdown due to the coronavirus outbreak.
The virus has brought the country’s economy into a near standstill, and the government is facing pressure to lift the containment measures, especially the countrywide curfew and travel restrictions in parts of the country so that people can get back to work.
But against this background of pressure from the public and businesses, the World Health Organisation (WHO), Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, and the World Economic Forum (WEF), have all warned that opening up the economy too quickly might trigger a fresh wave of Covid-19 infections.
“It is a tough balancing act that the President must tread carefully on otherwise we may end up experiencing a new wave of Covid-19 cases that could spread very fast.
On the one hand, the President must act in order to save the economy from collapsing, while on the other he has to weigh the possible health implications of his move,” said Dr Willy Akhwale, a WHO consultant on malaria.
With Kenya having recorded 2,340 positive cases and 78 fatalities by yesterday, opinion is divided whether the government should give priority to saving the ailing economy at the expense of the health situation.
This dilemma comes at a time when the country is recording relatively high numbers of new infections, averaging 100 a day.
On Wednesday, Interior Principal Secretary Karanja Kibicho told a local radio station that the government was looking at some sectors that had been severely hit by the closure with a view to resuscitating them.
“Kenyans are tired of staying at home and would like to go back to daily activities. Though the President will make the final decision on Saturday, there are many considerations that would require to be factored in,” the PS said.
He, however, was categorical that while the President may withdraw some of the restrictions in place since the first case was discovered in the country on March 13, Kenyans will have to contend with social distancing, wearing masks, regular hand washing and sanitising as a new way of life.
“What I know is that wearing of masks and social distancing are here to stay. Even if the government opens up the economy, some of the measures will still be enforced ,” Kibicho said.
Tomorrow, the President will decide whether to lift the countrywide curfew; end cessation of movement in and out Nairobi metropolitan area, Mombasa, Kwale, Kilifi and Mandera counties; allow reopening of bars, restaurants and hotels; lift the ban on local and international air travel; order reopening of schools and other learning institutions; and lift restrictions on public transport.
It’s important to note that most of the countries that have embarked on partial reopening of their economies have left their airspaces shut.
Also in the President’s in-tray is whether to extend the cessation of movement in the corona hotspots of Eastleigh in Nairobi and Mombasa’s Old town.
According to WHO, African countries must watch three key indicators before making any serious decisions on lockdown: the number of coronavirus cases, the extent of testing and whether an outbreak in a particular area is accelerating.
In a recent video conference, Matshidiso Moeti, the WHO regional director for Africa, urged governments on the continent to balance economic concerns with public health considerations.
“The economic impact of the pandemic is going to be great anyway and the measures are merely sharpening and making life worse on the most vulnerable populations.
So there needs to be a combination of gradually releasing, analysing the most critical economic activities that are to continue, including agriculture.
We’ve been very concerned about the lockdowns and the impact on agriculture,” the official said.
Medical and disaster management experts and other stakeholders agree that reopening the economy must be gradual and in phases to avoid negative consequences.
“Blind reopening of the economy can lead to catastrophic results. Rushing to conclusions and making decisions based on internal pressure, with inadequate disaster management or planning will lead to a surge in new cases, and a heightened risk of deaths,” says Dr Nicholas Nyandiko of Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology.
The don says the government must decide which areas of the economy to open up first and move to ease up other areas gradually.
The general agreement, however, is that the dusk-to-dawn curfew and cessation of movement in various areas has impacted negatively on the economy and should be lifted.
But before the government takes the decision, Dr Akhwale says it must strictly observe the three parameters of continued testing to determine the rate of infection, find out the number of those being admitted and the death rate.
“The government must build up public health systems to test, trace, isolate and treat cases. Secondly, the government must monitor data on how public health and social distancing measures affect the spread of the virus,” he says.
On reopening of schools, Kenya Union of Post Primary Education Teachers secretary general Akelo Misori says, the government must not be in a rush.
“We can start off with a few students, say, having only candidates in schools, before full reopening. Everything must be done systematically and gradually,” Misori told the People Daily.
However, some other experts are urging the government to maintain cessation of movement in areas considered hotspots in order to avoid enhanced community transmission.
“The government can still lock up areas such as Kibra that have continued to report significant rise in new cases of Covid-19.
Opening up such areas would be risking the lives,” a doctor at Kenyatta National Hospital who declined to be identified said.