Kenyans could face new Covid-19 restrictions ahead of the Christmas festive season as the government moves to respond today to concerns over the spread of the new Omicron coronavirus variant.
Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe said on Monday that a crisis meeting of the National Emergency Response Committee (NERC) has been called to discuss and assess new steps to contain the virus, even as more nations impose travel restrictions from southern Africa.
While restrictive measures like a full lockdown are unlikely, Mr Kagwe did not give definite assurances that separate public health measures would not be imposed.
“I can’t tell before the NERC meeting. There will be a press conference on Tuesday [after the NERC meeting],” Mr Kagwe said in response to Business Daily queries on the expected measures.
The NERC, which is chaired by Mr Kagwe, was established in February last year to guide the government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Its members include Cabinet Secretaries and principal secretaries in the ministries of Foreign Affairs, Defence, Treasury, Transport and ICT.
Others are the chief of staff in the office of the President and the heads of the Kenya Ports Authority and the Kenya Civil Aviation Authority.
Kenya is on high alert after the World Health Organization (WHO) said Monday the heavily mutated Omicron coronavirus variant was likely to spread internationally and posed a very high risk of infection surges that could have “severe consequences” in some places.
The WHO urged member states to accelerate Covid-19 vaccination efforts among eligible persons, as well as “use a risk-based approach to adjusting international travel measures in a timely manner.”
Besides other possible containment measures, Kenya will decide today on whether to join a host of countries in imposing new Covid-19 travel restrictions to and from South Africa as a deadly second wave of infections sweeps the region.
Dozens of nations have blacklisted South Africa and its neighbours since South African scientists flagged Omicron on November 25 amid protests from Pretoria.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa on Sunday protested the move calling on countries to “immediately and urgently” reverse scientifically “unjustified” travel bans linked to the discovery of the new coronavirus variant.
“We call upon all those countries that have imposed travel bans on our country and our southern African sister countries to immediately and urgently reverse their decisions,” he said on Sunday in his first address to the nation following last week’s detection of the new variant.
A number of countries in the world have reported their first cases of the Omicron Covid-19 variant, as governments across the globe race to understand the scale of its spread.
Kenya had 254,951 confirmed Covid-19 cases and 5,333 deaths, with a positivity rate of 0.5 percent as of Friday. It has not publicly reported the new strain of the virus.
Analysts were yesterday bracing for signs of how the Omicron variant could endanger more lives or disrupt the Kenyan economy.
“A big push for vaccines will surely be on the cards,” said Mr Kunal Ajmera, chief operating officer at consultancy firm Grant Thornton.
“A lockdown or restriction on movement of people is unlikely to happen in the near future since we simply cannot afford to stifle the economy, which has barely gathered momentum.”
Kenya plans to vaccinate 27.2 million adult Kenyans by end of June next year and at least 10 million by Christmas this year. The proportion of adults fully vaccinated now stands at 9.8 percent, with 2.65 million people fully vaccinated.
Kenya on March 26 announced new lockdown measures to curb the Covid-19 wave, including restricted travel in Nairobi and four surrounding counties.
Many of those measures have since been eased.
The overall global risk related to the new Omicron variant “is assessed as very high,” according to the WHO technical brief released Monday.
Depending on how transmissible the variant is and whether it could escape immunity, “the likelihood of potential further spread of Omicron at the global level is high,” the WHO brief said.
Kenya’s economic recovery has started, but there have been fears the pace could be hit by a shortage of Covid-19 vaccines and new waves of infections.
The impact of the pandemic on key sectors such as tourism saw economic output contract for the first time in nearly three decades last year.
The Covid knocks saw growth slide to negative 0.3 percent last year from 5.0 percent in 2019.
This period ushered in layoffs and pay cuts as firms grappled with flagging sales due to the restrictions.
Kenya has been acquiring doses of vaccines from Pfizer and Johnson and Johnson to supplement the Astrazeneca vaccines.
Allowing the Omicron coronavirus variant to circulate unchecked increases the risk that dangerous new strains will emerge and countries around the world are scrambling to impose travel bans to stem the spread.
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