Solid strategy lacking in anti-pandemic response

Ideas & Debate

Solid strategy lacking in anti-pandemic response

Nurses prepare an isolation room in Kisumu. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

It is 108 days since Wuhan. It is 78 days since Kenya’s first Coronavirus scare, which turned out to be a false alarm. 35 days since patient zero. We’ve been in a dusk-to-dawn curfew for 21 nights; in partial lockdown in one metropolis and three counties for 11 days. All of this seems like a lifetime, but we’re not even a third of the way through 2020. Then the experts now tell us that this pandemic is just getting warmed up over here, and it’s months two to four, think mid-June, that will tell us where we are headed.

Let’s not forget we still haven’t dealt with those desert locusts, now hatching and preparing for a second wave of attack that the FAO suggests may be 20 times as deadly as the first one, at a time when the pandemic has disrupted the supply chain of “materials” needed to battle this menace.

If this doesn’t look like we’re on a war footing – food, health, economic, personal and community security under existential threat – then nothing will. This isn’t the time to choose between “kumbaya” songs of hope and “ni kubaya” (it’s bad) lamentations. Or to argue, like some, over lives versus livelihoods; there are no livelihoods without human lives, but equally, human living relies on livelihoods.

The one positive from this moment is that it offers pause for reflection, and the exchange of great ideas in a country where, as our first President famously put it, “serikali ni siri kali” (government is a top secret). As the press tells us (since we’re locked up and down), it’s also showcasing our invention out of necessity – think “made in Kenya” face masks and other PPE, testing kits, ventilators. Let’s see rollout.

What seems to be missing is a feel for where this plethora of great thinking, debate and ideas is going; or how it is feeding into national policy, and strategy. There’s a credible view that, even for a pandemic that has tied every government around the world in knots, ours somehow seems particularly muddled.

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Let’s go back a little. In January (before that scare), a National 2019 Novel Coronavirus Contingency (Readiness and Early Response) Plan (February to April 2020) was prepared by the Ministry of Health.

There were five objectives to the plan. Co-ordination, building surveillance and laboratory capacity, case management and psychosocial support, risk communication and logistics and supplies. A Sh823 million budget was drawn up, with 90 per cent going to capacity, procurement and communication, and five per cent each to coordination and actual case management (including treatment).

The plan envisaged a most likely scenario where a single asymptomatic case morphed into 500 cases from 1,000 contacts, then 100 severe cases and 25 fatalities. A National Public Health Emergency Steering Committee and Covid-19 Task Force were to be formed.

Then that February scare happened and global numbers ballooned. Hence the hurried Executive Order 49 days ago forming the National Emergency Response Committee on Coronavirus (NERC) headed by the Health Cabinet Secretary. We also know of the Covid-19 Emergency Fund which Kenyans don’t seem to trust, which explains the privately-led “Ninajali” appeal trending on social media.

Through the press, we recently learnt that NERC is only one of four “War on Coronavirus” Committees, the others being interestingly titled Security Preparedness and Response, County Government Coordination and Food Supply, and National Economic and Business Response. All reporting to the National Coordination Committee on Response to Coronavirus Super-Committee.

Recall that a Cabinet “Ad-Hoc” Committee on Health (ad hoc?) and Inter-Ministerial Technical Committee on the Government Response to Coronavirus Outbreak were scrapped when NERC was formed; a National Public Health Emergency Steering Committee in the January plan was never formed.

It beggars belief that this institutional inflation hasn’t yet given Kenyans “fit for purpose” solutions for their current state of living, through reliefs and support, after a month’s work. Or maybe not, Kenya has always been adept at establishing Task Forces and Committees full of pork, but lacking in belly.

Is there some light out there? Well, a Senate Ad-Hoc Committee on Covid-19 has offered, in a framework Pandemic Response and Management Bill, a more holistic approach to pandemics through national and county structures, a national pandemic fund and socio-economic protection measures that go beyond the dilatory and predatory tax changes the National Assembly is currently considering. Think about tax incentives, loans and mortgages, contractual obligations, tenancy agreements, labour relations, social safety nets and other economic safeguards, utilities, rates and licences. Plus ICT.

They’ve done it the proper way – consulting people (146 submissions), researching comparative practices, considering smart and appropriate practice for Kenya and crafting a bill that isn’t prescriptive but offers opportunities for engagement between parties (e.g. consider tax incentives, consider cushioning measures for loans, contracts, rent, jobs or bill payments). That’s policy making right there. Let’s see where, and how far, it goes. Then let’s get a war strategy, not bureaucracy, for this pandemic.

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