BY PETER WANYONYI
“We in the World Health Organisation do not advocate lockdowns as the primary means of control of [Covid-19]. The only time we believe lockdowns are justified is to buy you time to reorganise, regroup, rebalance your resources…”. These are the words of Dr David Nabarro, the WHO’s special envoy on Covid-19. He could have been speaking directly to, and about, Kenya. There is no doubting the devastating effects of COVID-19 on individuals. But lockdowns such as the one President Uhuru Kenyatta announced on 27 March simply make the situation worse: as Dr Nabarro said, “Lockdowns just make poor people poorer”.
Kenya’s economy, reliant as it was on tourism – which has evaporated since Covid-19 arrived – was already on its knees when the new lockdown directive came. Now, residents of Nairobi, Kajiado, Machakos, Kiambu and Nakuru counties have seen their economic and family lives shut down in the latest lockdown, with a brutal 8pm – 4am curfew and the shutting down of restaurants, eateries, bars and the like. No movement into these areas by any means will be allowed. Schools are shut down, as are any gatherings of any sort, more or less.
It is difficult to make sense of this blanket suffocation, which just happens to take in Kenya’s most economically productive regions. Why did the President act in such a panicked manner?
The virus is not going to disappear. Shuttering people in their homes kills the economy but only temporarily prevents the spread of the virus. Sooner or later people will begin to mingle. Indeed, in the West, we already see the effect of yo-yo lockdown-relaxation regimes:, lockdowns result in reported infections falling slightly, leading to a relaxation of lockdown rules, followed by a surge of new infections. That surge leads to panic among politicians and NGO talking heads, who demand demand – and get – the “solution” to this: more lockdowns.
Is Kenya going to be caught up in an endless cycle of lockdown-relaxation-lockdown? Till when? What is the strategy of the Ministry of Health – what are they planning to do about this virus? The answer, most likely, is “nothing”.
In fact, there are solutions that the government should be looking at. A robust testing, tracing and isolating system is critical, but tracing is almost impossible in the chaos that is Nairobi. Try tracing someone in Kibera, say! As such, testing must be the beachhead for our assault on the virus. Sewage testing in residential areas can help identify urban regions with rising infections. People with conditions like diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and similar conditions should be advised to isolate immediately. The rest of Kenya – which has an average age of just 20 years, with most of the population fit and healthy – should be allowed to go about their business with reasonable measures such as distancing, sanitising, and face coverings in place.
This pandemic is just getting started. Locking down the country and killing the economy while waiting for the virus to magically disappear will kill the very people it is meant to help. Kenya is famously chaotic – but in the face of a virus as economically damaging as Coronavirus, and with a cabinet as demonstrably useless as the one we have, the President has no option but to run things himself. He should begin by putting a real Covid strategy in place, and then relaxing this pointless lockdown.