Coronavirus (Covid-19) has caused an existential crisis, the likes of which humankind has never seen. Its disruptive nature is unprecedented.
Coronavirus (Covid-19) has caused an existential crisis, the likes of which humankind has never seen. Its disruptive nature is unprecedented. Africa has appeared to be behind the curve, seemingly inured to the effects of this ugly pandemic. Many reasons have been advanced. Some have posited that because of infrastructural shortcomings, there has been massive underreporting of the spread on the continent. Others have declared that the richness of melanin in African skin has acted as a buffer against Covid-19.
Whilst there is no empirical evidence to support these notions, the levels of infection on the continent remain low. A clear pattern that emerges is that Covid-19 infections have proliferated where countries have well established air travel infrastructure. It is, therefore, no exaggeration to say the principle mode of dissemination is air travel. Lack of elaborate air networks explains the limited spread across the continent.
It then follows that Health Cabinet Secretary (CS) Mutahi Kagwe’s decision to suspend all international air travel to and from Kenya is a step in the right direction. Because all initial infections in the country can be traced to the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, it is clearly the weak link in the fight against Covid-19. Closing the airport to international passenger traffic is, as such, an unprecedented yet necessary step to prevent the contagion from further entry into Kenya.
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Other measures outlined by the CS include the observation of social distancing. This has proved difficult not only for Kenyans but for citizens in other countries. Italy and Spain, where the highest mortality rates prevail, ignored early warnings to observe the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) recommended one-metre spacing between people.
Australians, in complete disregard of the dangers of the virus, recently thronged Bondi Beach in carnival-like numbers, leading to a lockdown. Kenyans have been advised to adhere to these WHO guidelines. Yet, people still congregated in churches and other public spaces, totally oblivious of exposure. A senior official of a county government, after arrival from an overseas trip, failed to self-quarantine as advised.
Counting on people to instinctively do the right thing is counter-intuitive. Making sure that they do what is right is the right course of action. Following the failure of citizens to adhere to basic instructions, it would be remiss of the government to expect that left on their own, people would make appropriate choices. Consequently, more drastic measures may be called for in the coming days as cases of infection increase. One of these measures, unpalatable as it sounds, would include a complete lockdown of Nairobi.
The Chinese city of Wuhan, where Covid-19 originated, has proven the efficacy of a complete lockdown. Presently, there are no new infections reported from that city and a sense of normalcy is returning. Other affected countries have followed suit. A case for lockdown in Kenya is predicated on the fact that it is unreasonable to allow coronavirus to afflict society’s most vulnerable. Currently, these are the needy and the elderly.
Because of Kenya’s dilapidated public healthcare system, the country’s needy have limited access to proper medical attention. A flare-up of the coronavirus in the slums that characterise the habitat of the majority would be too grave to contemplate. Further, the social set-up in the country relegates those past their prime to rural areas where life in retirement is more affordable. Drawing from the Italian experience, these senior citizens are most susceptible to Covid-19 and form the highest mortality rate for any age demographic cohort. They must be protected.
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There are two sticking points before a total lockdown is mooted. The first is the availability of a professional force to enforce the lockdown and to effectively distribute supplies to the poor. The US has called on the national guard whereas other countries have depended on their military. Can Kenya’s military be trusted to deliver? Can they be expected to perform better than during the Westgate crisis?
The second is the availability of resources to meet the needs of those under lockdown for the duration of the crisis. Media reports point to a cash-strapped government that had only a paltry Sh2.8 billion a month ago. That’s a drop in the ocean.
A decision to lockdown or not to lockdown looms in the coming days. How it pans out could well be the defining moment of the Jubilee administration.
Mr Khafafa is a public policy analyst