To open or not to open: the President’s dilemma on economy

We are staring at the third straight month since the economy was shut down by the various measures that were taken to contain the Covid-19 pandemic; the closure of international travel, keeping of social distance, dawn to dusk curfew, closure of movement out of certain hotspot counties and lockdown of certain locations within the cities of Nairobi and Mombasa. A lot of water has since passed under the bridge, carrying along with it lives, dreams, jobs and businesses. When all is settled, there will be horrifying tales from the survivors of this pandemic.  

I know of a friend who had just switched jobs from telecommunication to hospitality at the beginning of March with the new one holding all the hopes of her life. Before her first pay, the pandemic struck and they were sent on an indefinite and unpaid leave. For a whole month she kept her hopes alive but the five star establishment in mid May summoned all the over 100 newly hired employees and dismissed them.  “Management, understandably, says they cannot sustain us even if the economy were to open today as it would take long for business to recover from the shocks,” she bemoans. According to the CBK, 75% of SMEs are staring at total collapse by end of June. The ripple effect of that to the economy will be devastating. The hardest hit sector as at now, with closed airspace, curtailed internal movement and stay home advisories, is the hospitality industry. Norfolk Nairobi, for instance, recently closed shop altogether and fired everyone. Serena Hotels as at 31 May sent all its employees on unpaid leave until further notice. 

In the meantime Covid-19, taking advantage of Government blunders, is biting its hardest every sunrise as numbers of those testing positive skyrocket. The biggest failure of the Government was to criminalise a global pandemic. They made quarantine a symbol of punishment for those that defied government guidelines on the pandemic, worsened it by passing the cost of quarantine to the victims, and messed it up further by involving the Kenya National Police ‘Force’ in effecting it. By so doing, they isolated the people rather than have them on board in the fight. The worst was however the attempt to lock down Eastleigh in Nairobi and Old Town in Mombasa that had become hotspots. With quarantine and treatment having become a police affair and costly, people took off to their kin in other parts of the cities, effectively spreading the virus. I would rather theyramped up testing and treatment services in those two places without raising alarm. The long distance transport mess at the borders especially in the Counties of Busia, Kajiado and Migori is a story for another day. The short and long of it is that the virus has since become a community thing, spreading to each and every corner of the country. The worst is yet to come. 

And so you understand why it is going to be a very difficult decision for the President to make on reopening the economy. On the one hand, the economy is grinding to a halt and anarchy is looming large on the horizon. On the other, the virus is ravaging the masses. The president is damned both ways. Focus must now change drastically to two things – testing and free treatment.  Redirect all the resources to purchasing of testing kits, personal protection equipment for health workers on the frontline and make treatment free . Do not spend any more money on leasing of ambulances (Sh42m), tea and snacks (Sh4m) and communication (Sh70) like in the last budget of the Sh1.3b of the World Bank donated funds. Move the fight from the boardrooms.  Test Covid-19 at the triage in hospitals just like taking of temperature, weight and pressure. 

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