What State should do before reopening the country

Monday, June 8th, 2020 08:00 |
President Uhuru Kenyatta addresses the nation. Photo/PSCU

Daniel Iberi  

The Covid-19 pandemic has pummelled Kenya’s economy and upended social life, putting pressure on the President to lift stringent measures put in place to contain the virus.

The scope and scale of disruption caused by the virus has never been witnessed in Kenya before; and this could conceivably explain the dissonant voices among policy makers on reopening the country. 

Yet, even the President has admitted that the country cannot be on lockdown forever.

As we inch closer to an inevitable re-opening soon, the government could find value in two key policy interventions: mitigation against the risk of a new surge of infections and a well hashed out non-pharmaceutical interventions. 

Initial projections indicated that Kenya would record 1,000 Covid-19 cases by mid-April and a further 4,000 cases a week later. However, these grim projections did not come to pass.

Numerous hypotheses for the low numbers have been advanced ranging from the late arrival of the virus in the country, experience in handling highly communicable diseases, a youthful population, limited international travels, to a lack of adequate testing equipment and mass testing. The jury is still out on the veracity of these claims. 

Often left out of these explanations are government’s aggressive initiatives such as curfews,  border closures, travel restrictions and other measures. So, gains have been made, but the battered economy is about to bust and everyone is worried. 

The ineluctable reopening of the country should then come with great measure of discipline and preparedness to mitigate second wave of infections.

From mass testing that began in early May, the daily average number of confirmed cases is a cause for concern.

Inferring from these statistics, there are more than enough number of infected and highly susceptible people who can trigger a second wave of infections.

Add that to the likely impact of super spreaders in the country if all measures are lifted—think of schools, nightclubs, informal settlements, concerts, weddings, and funerals. Left unchecked, it could be cataclysmic for a stretched health system.  

Policymakers should, therefore, be preoccupied with creating policies that will prevent exponential infection rates upon resumption.

The Health  ministry ought to adopt a proven model to guide its response. In the past, the Susceptible-Exposed-Infected-Recovered (SEIR) model has been used successfully in predicting the spread of highly infectious disease.

The success of this model has been attributed to accurate data and timely reporting. 

Other critical elements include adequate testing equipment, enhanced mass testing, efficient contact-tracing techniques, and a well-resourced healthcare system that prioritises its doctors and nurses.

Questions abound. Do authorities fully understand the transmissibility and severity of Covid-19 in the country?

What about the country’s fragilities and idiosyncrasies such as mannerism and conduct? 

If these questions are well answered, half the problem will have been resolved, and a second wave averted. 

Outside these interventions, the country should enhance hitherto relatively effective non-pharmaceutical initiatives.

While it will be difficult to control human density in some areas through social distancing, mandatory wearing of masks, hand washing, temperature screening at entry points, and use of sanitiser spray booths should be ‘categorical imperatives’ as long as new infections are reported. This is the price Kenyans will have to pay for reopening.  —The writer is Strategic Communications Manager at the HORN International Institute for Strategic Studies

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