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Peg new policies on research to help flatten corona curve

By Irungu Houghton | May 23rd 2020 at 00:00:00 GMT +0300

This Monday, we celebrate both Idd-ul-Fitr and African Liberation Day. For the first time in decades, one issue - flattening the Covid-19 curve - pre-occupies 1.3 billion Africans.

To date, there have been 99,062 cases of people who have contracted the virus across Africa; 3,082 have died and 39,085 have recovered. Nine countries, mostly from Northern and Southern Africa led by Egypt, South Africa and Algeria, are the most affected. While still low, mass testing has tripled in the last month, with 1.2 million Africans having now been tested, with remarkable increases in countries like Nigeria. 

Policymakers across Africa and elsewhere in the world face one of the most difficult choices. As the negative economic impact begins to bite, the policy choices begin to narrow around health, wealth and the risks of public unrest. Lift the lockdown and open up too early, fragile health systems will be quickly over-run and large numbers of people will die unprotected. Keep the lockdown and the national economy and millions of livelihoods will be crushed. 

A growing number of countries have begun to partially ease restrictions. Among them are rich and middle-income countries like Germany, Brazil and South Africa. Across Africa, night-time curfews and restrictions on public gatherings remain in place. However, countries have begun to allow businesses to re-open. Ghana has re-opened internal flights and from next month, schools seem set to re-open in a phased manner in South Africa. With this, the release of two national opinion polls and global conversations now prompt us to revisit whether Kenya should be extending or easing lockdown measures. 

This week, TIFA research and the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics released two significant opinion polls. Both sought to establish the impact of Covid-19 and health measures on the public, as well as how Kenyans are adapting. Their findings are fairly similar on the most important issues. The findings are crucial to the national debate on whether it is time to lift the lockdown or not. 

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After months of community, private and public communications strategies, nearly every Kenyan is aware of the risk Covid-19 poses to the nation. We know how to wash our hands, what physical distance we need to keep and why it is important to stay at home, observe the curfew and other restrictions. Knowing doesn’t mean complying. It simply means that we have information for us to make wise or stupid decisions. Nevertheless, 70 per cent of the population remain fearful of infection and we fear crowded public areas, public service vehicles and supermarkets most. 

The economic hardships are real. One in two Kenyans has seen their incomes reduce and one in five has lost a job over the last 60 days. This impact has affected self-employed and daily wage earners most. One in every five Kenyans who normally pay their rent on time was not able to do this at the end of April. Only 8 per cent of landlords and their agents listened to the president’s appeal to offer rent waivers to their tenants. Home-schooling has been a major challenge for all classes of families but particularly for those from homes in the informal settlements. One in four children has been unable to adapt to online and digitally powered classes. They neither have the bundles, digital gadgets or the space to do this effectively. The last two months have been wasted from the perspective of formal learning.

Less than two per cent of families have the space to self-isolate or quarantine family members in their homes. As the pandemic impoverishes, the fear of rising crime levels increases. In our homes, the spectre of violence against spouses and children rises. So, too, do distress-related crimes. Women and men stealing for food, to pay rent and survive. 

National conversations are beginning to mirror global policy conversations again. Is it time for children to return to their schools? Having realised the pandemic didn’t stop pregnancies, is it time we opened up our hospitals to non-Covid-19 related illnesses? Is it time to lift the restrictions on public places, in-country and international travel? 

Every one of these policy choices and others have an impact on whether we flatten the curve or the country. It is critical that these policy choices are informed by development data offered by the TIFA and KNBS studies. They offer a glimmer into what the trade-offs could be and how we can protect the health, wealth and confidence of the public. Happy Africa Liberation Day and Idd-ul-Fitr, Africans! 

- The writer is Amnesty International executive director. The views are personal. Email: [email protected]

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