President Uhuru Kenyatta was on Saturday evening facing one of his toughest moments as the clock ticked towards the moment when he is supposed to review Covid-19 restriction measures.
This is as the country registered the highest number of infections in a day since the coronavirus was first detected in the county, and with a health system that is almost stretched to its limits.
With the general public mood pushing for total reopening of the economy and removal of travel restrictions, the Head of State has been pushed into a damned-if-you-do-damned-of-you-don’t corner.
The current restrictions include a ban on social gatherings, cessation of movement in and out of Nairobi and Mombasa and a 9pm-to-5am curfew. Other restrictions include the closure of schools and banning of international travel. The restrictions, which have been in place since March, were extended on June 6 for a further 30 days, and so are due for review tomorrow.
If President Kenyatta fully opens up the economy by allowing free movement, he could prevent an economic recession but risk a surge of Covid-19 infections, especially in rural areas as an urban-rural exodus looms.
In the recent GDP data released by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, the economic growth slowed down to 4.9 per cent in the first three months to March, from 5.5 per cent last year, affected by uncertainty about the pandemic.
Still, a promise being what it is, and with various departments forced to come up with protocols on how to prevent a surge in infections, President Kenyatta could lift a few restrictions as part of a gradual reopening of the economy.
The government, the Sunday Nation understands, has opted to reopen the economy gradually to give Kenyans time to learn how to live with the coronavirus in what is being referred to as the new normal. Additionally, the government believes that reopening the economy in phases will enable the country to beef up its capacity to handle a surge in cases.
However, by Saturday, an agreement had not been made on what sectors will be reopened, with government technocrats and scientists differing on guidelines.
Whereas the final decision is the President’s, he will be guided by recommendations from a number of ministries and committees, led by the National Emergency Response Committee of the Coronavirus.
When the Head of State held his second meeting with county governors last month over the pandemic, he indicated that his decision will be informed by the level of preparedness in the devolved units to respond to a possible surge in infections.
This was largely to be determined by the counties’ capacity to effectively respond to new cases of Covid-19 imported into their territories in the wake of the reopening.
“County readiness to respond to new imported cases of infection will largely determine our national readiness to reopen the country as a whole,” he said. “I say this because the nation is the sum total of all the 47 counties. If the counties have met the necessary thresholds, then the nation will be ready to reopen.” The counties were expected to meet the presidential target of 300 isolation beds per county to be able to handle the numbers.
However, in a report seen by the Sunday Nation, only 23 counties have met the target ahead of the July 7 deadline. Cumulatively, counties had attained a total of 9,300 isolation beds, against the national target of 30,500 units.
For ventilators and ICU beds, the 47 counties have only 400 – 800 ventilators and 400 ICU beds.
The counties were also directed by the President to identify Covid-19 hospitals in their counties for gazzetement. The Sunday Nation understands that this has not been done.
As of Saturday, 41 out of 47 counties had reported cases of the virus, with Nairobi leading with 3,532, followed by Mombasa (1,559), Busia (423), Kajiado (278), Kiambu (276), Migori (130), Machakos (118), and Uasin Gishu (155).
Counties with the least number of beds yet they have recorded cases include Siaya, with only 20 beds, Kirinyaga (20), Nyamira (20), West Pokot (21), Bungoma (22), Nyandarua (23), Lamu (30), Trans-Nzoia (32), Narok (40) and Tana River (42).
Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe has previously advised the President against reopening the economy before the response preparedness threshold is achieved, and it was not clear last evening whether he would stick to his guns as the clock ticks towards a review of the restrictions.
His arguments have been based on the experiences of countries that rushed to reopen their economies without having proper containment protocols in place, and which soon faced a surge in new infections.
Health Director-General Patrick Amoth said unless the counties hand over a report that they have all complied with the measures, there is no need for reopening because that would mean the country will be inviting more problems.
Counties have to strengthen case management units, put in place rapid response teams to facilitate contact tracing, and ensure that public and social health measures are functional by ensuring that masks and sanitisers are given to vulnerable communities.
They are also expected stop all gatherings, have a department for infection and prevention control and functional laboratories for Covid-19 tests.
“If these measures are put in place, together with a good monitoring system of cases, then we can advise the President to open up the country, but until these are in place, then we must not open,” Dr Amoth said.
His view was that the President can gradually open the country, but not schools and houses of worship as it is hard to maintain physical distancing in them.
Kakamega Governor Wycliffe Oparanya, who is also chairman of the Council of Governors, proposes that cessation of movement should not be lifted unless the proposed strategies are adequately implemented, and that this should only apply to counties that have flattened the curve, including Mandera.
He advised that the curfew be maintained for as long as it takes to flatten the curve.
Prof Omu Anzala, a virologist, also insists that reopening the economy will depend on how counties are prepared as lifting restrictions in Mombasa and Nairobi when others are not prepared is calling for more problems.
“We insist that counties should be well-prepared, just like Nairobi, in terms of contact-tracing, have well-equipped isolation and quarantine centres, and ensure that all the mitigation factors are adhered to,” he said.
Health Chief Administrative Secretary Rashid Aman warned of major spikes in Covid-19 numbers should the country reopen because of laxity by a section of Kenyans.
“Countries that reopened closed down again because of the increase in the number of infections. We must strike a balance in terms of how we would like to see our country move forward and avoid running the risk of experiencing an upsurge of cases. It better to be safe than sorry,” he said.
Dr Aman indicated that even with the situation of Covid-19 infections in the country, a majority of Kenyans have been discussing the possibility of government opening the economy.
“This discussion is unavoidable, but it is clear that there is some laxity by a majority of our people in adhering to the containment measures, hence aiding the spread of the virus,” he said.
The President also directed the religious organisations to come up with protocols that will enable Kenyans to go to places of worship for the first time in more than three months. By their nature, places of worship also present Kenyans with a chance for friends and families to meet, thus it would be interesting to note what social distancing protocols are put in place.
The Inter-Faith Council on the national response of coronavirus was by yesterday yet to present its report to President Kenyatta, with the chairman, Archbishop Anthony Muheria of the Nyeri Catholic Archdiocese, telling the Sunday Nation that his 15-member committee was still working on the proposals.
It is, however, understood that the Ministry of Education is against the idea of reopening academic institutions, saying it cannot risk children’s health. This is despite an earlier indication that students in colleges and candidates for national examinations could be allowed to resume classes from September, but with strict protocols to stop transmissions.
The Ministry of Transport, on the other hand, has been preparing for the resumption of domestic flights, giving hope that the ban on inter-county travel could also be lifted tomorrow. The Kenya Airports Authority together with Ministry of Health officials have been working with airlines on how to create a safe environment for travelling.
Last week, President Kenyatta said he was eager to get Kenya Airways back in the skies.
But one of the key sticking points on the resumption of local flights that is yet to be resolved is how airlines will enforce social distancing and still carry more passengers to make profit.
The government wants them to carry about half of their capacities as is happening with public service vehicles, but airlines say they have to carry at least 67 per cent of their seat capacity to be profitable.
The other option for airlines is to carry fewer passengers as demanded by government but hike air fares as public service vehicles have done, which could be counterproductive.
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