After the initial panic associated with the announcement of Kenya’s first case of coronavirus, the country has entered a phase of uneasy calm. It can’t rest easy because the lull is just a precursor to an impending storm. The let-up, however momentary, should allow the government room for reflection; to gauge whether any decision it makes henceforth is people-centric, or is driven by an underlying fear of economic collapse.
The government’s fears are not unfounded. The novel coronavirus has been categorised as a pandemic by the World Health Organisation. Anthony Fauci, director of America’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases describes it as “a respiratory illness that easily spreads from person to person and has a high degree of morbidity and mortality”. He further says that the mortality rate of coronavirus is 10 times that of an ordinary flu.
Fauci is categorical that there is no proven effective direct therapy for the disease but just a number of ongoing clinical trials. All alleged cures, including the use of chloroquine, are anecdotal stories. But a pattern of prevention, crystallised from the experiences of countries that are afflicted emerges. Social distancing, self-isolation, compulsory quarantine and lockdown are the progressive steps taken, from shielding oneself to ultimately shielding others when one is infected.
The principle mode of dispersal has been through air travel. Africa has been largely spared because of its undeveloped air network relative to the rest of the world. But not for long. Many countries on the continent are now reporting cases of positive testing for the virus. In fact, some deaths have already occurred, including that of a Kenyan.
It follows therefore that the most ideal step to prevent the entry of Covid-19 into Kenya would have been the shut-off of Kenya’s airspace immediately the first case was detected. But there were prevarications as considerations of the impact of such a move on the economy were deliberated. Eventually, a decision was made to halt all international passenger flights.
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The second-best step is a total lockdown of Nairobi. Most of those who have tested positive reside here. Because coronavirus has been a preserve of the elitist few with access to air travel, the function of a lockdown would be to prevent it from reaching informal settlements. The vast majority lives in these settlements. This would be therefore be a duty of care towards society’s most vulnerable.
But a total lockdown is not without cost implications. Pundits have argued that because most Kenyans are bottom of the pyramid employees, they subsist on daily wages. A lockdown would jeopardise the livelihoods of such. Even those who are deemed better off are really pseudo-middle-class. In addition to formal employment, they are part of a wider gig-economy, supplementing their income through other pursuits. These are the ubiquitous taxi drivers, clothes merchants, caterers and a host of others engaged in what is popularly known as “the side hustle.” Any interference would make their stay in the city untenable.
It is clear that social distancing and self-isolation have only been partially effective in Kenya. Fifty people have tested positive for coronavirus. Considering other countries, alarm bells should have triggered by now. A little over a month ago, Spain had just five people testing positive for the virus. Today, they are in the thick of a medical storm with more than 6,000 dead and over 78,000 infected. Based on this modelling, Kenya would be a sitting-duck should there be a full-blown breakout.
Whatever the cost to the economy, a lockdown is nothing compared to the potential loss of human life should we persist in remaining behind the curve. An American doctor, fighting to save lives in New York insists, “We must continue to reverberate the notion that staying at home is the greatest contribution to ending this pandemic!”
Perhaps government should mull the creation of supply lines to informal settlements so that the needy are provided for should the crisis escalate. Hindsight has 20-20 vision. It sees with startling clarity the genesis of a problem and its resolution. As Kenya leaves the eye to enter the storm, it can benefit from the hindsight of others. Let it not get to the point where, as some have, the metric of success becomes the prevention of the death toll from getting to 20,000.
Mr Khafafa is a public policy analyst