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Kenya must weigh carefully decision to reopen economy

By Irungu Houghton | September 26th 2020 at 00:00:00 GMT +0300

Monday’s National Covid-19 Conference convened by the Presidency could mark an important point in the fight against coronavirus. With the virus re-spiking internationally and reduced incidences being announced domestically, the decision to lift critical public health guidelines needs to be weighed carefully.

Across Europe and India particularly, governments are re-introducing strict restrictions in response to sharp increases in infections. German towns have placed bans on gatherings of more than five people, French towns have ordered bars to close indefinitely and Britain is urging employers to return to work-from-home policies. Across Europe and India, the infection rates are returning to March levels. If not arrested, India seems set to overtake the US.

The last seven months have been brutal for Kenya. With close to 37,000 infections, 700 deaths and 24,000 recoveries, the pandemic has ravaged many homes and left no county untouched. At least 1.7 million people have lost jobs, many of them between the age of 20-29. Salaries have dropped for at least a third of employees who still have jobs and the informal sector could take years to rebuild.

According to Dr Sophie Uyoga and others, one in twenty Kenyans may have had SARS-CoV-2 IgG antibodies in April. This study contradicts the Health Ministry daily briefings. It probably also partially vindicates Hon John Kiarie who was arrested in May for arguing that the government was not reporting comprehensively. If this study is accurate, then Kenyans have been extremely resilient to the virus given the magnitude of deaths reported in Europe, America and elsewhere.

Reported cases of infections and deaths have dropped by over half in the last month. Having reported rates of positivity in testing dropping below 5%, is the government considering reopening the economy? The Education Ministry’s announcement that children will return to school in barely three weeks suggests we are entering a new phase. It is worth noting ahead of the conference that 55 per cent of Kenyans feel the government has managed the pandemic well compared to the rest of East Africa and Africa. They cite the daily briefings, closure of national borders, inter-county movement restrictions, handwashing and mask wearing.

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Sixty-eight percent of Kenyans feel the government mismanaged curfew policing. Seventeen per cent think the mandatory quarantine programme directly violated human rights and roughly 15 per cent believe the government could have done more to stop gender-based violence and protect jobs.

It will probably take decades to fully comprehend the impact Covid-19 has had on our children. While primarily a health crisis, the pandemic has also been a child rights crisis. School closures, movement restrictions and high levels of family insecurity have likely resulted in higher levels of infant mortality, child labour, sexual and physical abuse, early pregnancy and child marriage.

Many will have been required to care for younger siblings or work to support families with dwindling incomes. The closure of schools and nurseries has disrupted support structures critical for child protection and learning.

There are some preconditions before the Education Ministry re-opens our schools next month. Physical distance conscious classrooms, handwashing points and provision of masks are obvious ones. The National Treasury must also release Sh12.3 billion requested by Kenya Union of Post Primary Education Teachers to ensure the infrastructure and resources are in place for a safe re-opening.

Education Cabinet Secretary George Magoha’s assurance that families will have no fees to pay is encouraging. Predictably, most will still face prohibitive miscellaneous school and exam fees, transportation, uniform, supplies and sanitary costs. The ministry must share an emergency line for parents to report any deviations from this policy statement.

Schools will also need child protection measures to pre-empt and respond to anxiety, post abuse trauma and social stigma for children who have Covid-19 or come from families that have cases. School administrators and management boards must pro-actively identify specialised psycho-social counselling facilities and health-care facilities that might be needed. Teachers can also establish open listening spaces for returning pupils to share what they have experienced and as importantly, what they need to powerfully adjust back to school life. Teachers must prepare for these discussions with age appropriate information about Covid-19. Children have a right to be heard, especially at this time. Let them fully participate in defining their best interests.

-The writer is Amnesty International Executive Director and writes in his personal [email protected]


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