When President Uhuru Kenyatta announced that Kenya had detected the first coronavirus infection on March 12, it felt like a jolt in the system. It was a confirmation of the inevitability of the arrival of the global pandemic on our doorstep, Covid-19 was here with us. On March 15, three more cases were reported by Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe.
The CS reminded the nation that this was the “real McCoy.” He emphasized that nobody should take the threat posed by this epidemic lightly. Presently, Europe is the epicentre of the pandemic. One hundred and twenty three countries have reported infections, with more than 10,000 deaths.
Restrictions have been imposed by government to contain and or prevent a major outbreak in Kenya. Public gatherings, meetings, religious crusades have all been banned, schools and colleges are now closed, markets, hotels, restaurants, nightclubs are now restricted. Social distancing is a norm, handwashing and use of hand sanitiser can been seen in most places. Kenyans are now conscious about handshaking and touching their faces, the virus has changed our way of life.
Kenya is an economic hub, the gateway into East Africa. This outbreak will surely have a significant economic, social and political disruption. The increased global travel and integration, urbanisation, scarcity of land and poor utilisation of resources will expose the Kenyan economy to uncertainties of the impeding global recession because of the coronavirus pandemic.
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The frail health system in Kenya is a bane to the population. Gaps such as untimely detection of disease because of lack of detection kits, scarcity of basic care because of a stretched, unmotivated workforce and limited resources will have dire implications in case of an outbreak.
The likely impact of the coronavirus pandemic will be varied. No one will envisage a high mortality like in Italy and Iran. But this is the reality of our time. Age and underlying conditions have been blamed for the higher mortality in those nations. The coronavirus will add to the burden of disease already overwhelming the health system.
The economic shock will be felt by and large through reduced spending and fiscal shock. The increased government spending due to the pandemic, while trying to keep other sectors working will ultimately injure the economy to a large extent. Unfortunately, the economy which was not healthy in the first case will suffer further because of reduced foreign exchange, closed borders and hence a negative economic balance in terms of export especially in agriculture.
A major impact will also be felt on the surge in hospital admissions. Peaks in the administration and operational expenditure that is sudden and immense will have to be rationalised and paid for in a country where less than 20 per cent of the population is not insured.
A strained health system will ultimately affect the population, wasted human capital and man hours will lead to labor and productivity losses. Closure of businesses because of fear of contracting the virus will also impact spending and even paralyse the supply chain.
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The tourism industry will be a major casualty due to coronavirus. In 2018 the industry grew by 38 per cent, over 2 million visitors. This earned the industry an estimated Sh157 billion, which is now a pipedream. The major losers will be the hotel industry, tour operators, and airlines like the Kenya Airways.
Kenya is a severely malnourished economy. We are deep in debt, our healthcare is ailing and policy makers are at loss to pinpoint exactly what can be done to shore up a pandemic hit economy. This may yet be an opportunity to streamline the efforts to shore up the lopsided economy.
The government should consider some kind of tax relief maybe for the most basic of commodities, provide some form of work allowance to the overwhelmed workforce and support the small and medium enterprises that may be have to close due to the corona pandemic.
It is still early to have a conclusive argument about the effects of the coronavirus in Kenya, but it is important to acknowledge that China showed the world how to take direct action against Covid-19.
Nobody should be constrained by lack of resources; expand ICUs (intensive care units), build temporary hospitals if needed, buy needed commodities in bulk and make them available to all who need them, disinfect public places and make hygiene the order of the day. Introduce large-scale and mandatory testing because having the right numbers is the first step towards having the right strategy.
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- Dr Bob Chweya (MPSK) is a policy analyst. [email protected] @Chweyabob