Why economy has reopened despite rise in Covid-19 cases
By X.N. Iraki | July 12th 2020
There were no memes, songs, or jokes about the anticipated reopening of the Kenyan economy this time. Maybe we did not want to be disappointed like last time.
The rising number of Covid-19 cases may have convinced Kenyans that reopening was unlikely and not necessary.
The sober mood may have muted the celebration over the reopening of Nairobi and other four counties. A few calls to the rural areas and they say they do not want us, we are still Covid-19 carriers. Keep Covid-19 in Nairobi, they say.
Keen observers should not have been surprised by the reopening. It was anticipated.
The building of 300 isolation beds per county, shifting obligations to citizens and home-based care were all indicators that something was about to happen.
And it’s the global pattern despite surges in infections.
The retention of night curfew should not surprise us much; it’s a preventive security measure. In an economic downturn, crime often spikes. Now, you can go where you want as long as you are not on the road between 9pm and 4am.
The continued closure of entertainment joints is a blow to Nairobians and their love for congregating in groups to make merry.
That will wait. And so will political and other social gatherings. Events organisers need a bailout. Those who shipped their children to the rural areas might get them back or export more to cope with economic reality like job losses of the subdued business.
For once, we have stopped looking down on rural areas, they can be safe havens.
Something more subtle has taken place in the reopening of the economy, the shifting of responsibility from the national government to counties and citizens.
How will that play out?
The government, by giving us daily updates has done its part. The truth will come out around 2022 when Covid-19 will become a campaign issue.
You will hear lots of questions about who did what. Remember health is devolved and the onus falls on the governors to take responsibility.
One hopes the rising Covid-19 cases have sobered us to wear masks and take other precautions like social distancing.
My observation is that we still see that as a government directive. Why do we dislike government directives? I had Chinese students wearing masks in my class as early as February.
I sat next to a Chinese wearing a mask on a flight from Kigali to Nairobi in February.
Fellow passengers on the plane wanted me to share the experience. It is apparent we shall have learned to live with Covid-19 if we do not get a cure or a vaccine. We hope our crises will not be like Europe or the US. In silence; did we learn anything from HIV/AIDs?
Can we apply the lessons to Covid-19? For Corona, over 80 per cent of victims have mild symptoms and recovery is possible. Are there mild symptoms for AIDs? What should we fear more? The bigger question now is if the economy will recover after opening.
It will but slowly as Kenyans get back to their business. The huge contribution of Nairobi to gross domestic product (GDP) might be a factor in recovery.
We don’t expect a big spike because the biggest contributor to our economy, the informal sector did not close.
Focusing all the pent up energy on the economy might be the best revenge against Covid-19.
Many Kenyans feel that if the economy recovers, the risk of reopening is worth taking.
What if the numbers surge and it has to be closed again? That would create lots of uncertainty - an enemy of economic growth. We must not lose our guard in managing Covid-19.
Letting Kenyans voluntarily manage the Covid-19 as a test of national maturity. Based on my observations in the last three months, I will give my fellow countrymen a marginal pass in continuous assessment test (CAT) on national maturity before the final exam.
The recovery will also depend on how our trading partners react - from members of the East African Community to China or the European Union (EU). If they too open, the trade will flourish again.
Some fear the new Covid-19 protocols will raise the cost of goods and services. The protocols could even be used as protectionist measures. Did you see the United Kingdom’s (UK) list of countries whose citizens need no self-quarantine?
Some sectors will take time to recover despite the opening up of the economy. One is tourism. If you recall when Covid-19 started spreading, everyone went back to their country.
They will be reluctant to take the risk of traveling again.
Domestic tourism is the best bet and slashing entry fees to national parks was a good stimulus. Education is badly affected. Beyond the uncertainty of opening dates, lots of private investors will burn their fingers. International education will suffer too.
Lots of countries rely on foreign students and their dollars to run their universities.
The US, UK, EU, Australia, and other countries attract hordes of young men to their shores. They not only pay the fees but are great consumers.
They will not board or eat if they study online.
Shall we expand and prepare our schools in the next six months to accommodate the realities of Covid-19?
Aviation is another sector in the doldrums. Its razor-thin margins left it exposed to the ravages of the virus. Some airlines like Ethiopian have been active despite Covid-19; we are nationalising Kenya Airways.
Reopening the economy is the easier part, just like voting. Building confidence and demand thereof is the harder part. I bet that by reopening the economy, we might avoid a negative growth rate this year.
With good weather, careful handling of the prelude to 2022 polls, managing Covid through personal responsibility, we can inoculate our economy against the worst.
Economic recovery and growth should not dissuade us from focusing on the root cause of modern pandemics; our lack of respect for nature.
As long as we degrade the environment, drain swamps and clear forests, the risk of future pandemics will remain high. Does the reopening the economy support my earlier position; we should have shifted to a 24 hours economy instead of closing it?
Did countries overreact to Covid-19? Will Tanzania one day become a global benchmark on Covid-19?
-The writer is an associate professor at the University of Nairobi
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