Mixed signals to blame for surge in coronavirus infections
This article was first published in The Standard.
On Wednesday, Health Cabinet Secretary (CS) Mutahi Kagwe tightened the lockdown screws in Eastleigh, Nairobi and Old Town, Mombasa. He ordered the cessation of all movement in and out of that two areas as of 7pm that day.
However, according to social media accounts, that announcement was immediately followed by a mass exodus of people from Eastleigh to other parts of the city. Pictures were shared online of a multitude of cars on their way out of Eastleigh to beat the 7pm curfew.
There are now rumours of many houses in some estates in the city housing extended families of more than eight people.
During his daily briefing earlier, Mr Kagwe noted that Eastleigh and Old Town were the emerging epicentres of the disease as the majority of new cases were found in those highly populated areas. Two people, he added, had died in their homes of Covid-19 after they failed to seek treatment. They are suspected to have infected countless others.
It should be noted that one of the biggest contributor to this situation that we now find ourselves in are the mixed signals the Government has been sending in the past couple of weeks. The first of these signals was the announcement by the President Uhuru Kenyatta of the reopening of eateries that meet strict health guidelines.
“One immediate step from the work done so far is that we will allow a few restaurants and eateries that show the highest levels of health regulation compliance, and the ability to arrange for employee testing, to undertake minimal operations while maintaining measures that mitigate against the spread of the coronavirus,”President Uhuru Kenyatta on the April 25 this year .
“We will reopen this economy, but it must be in a way that does not endanger thousands of lives. Some countries had initially succeeded in suppressing the pandemic, only for them to open up without a proper process and suffer a huge spike in infections,” said the president.
The signal that this announcement sent was that we had almost won the war against Covid-19 and, therefore, we could get back to work. Literally two days later, a drive through downtown Nairobi showed that people had responded to that signal by going to work. There was traffic on Moi Avenue and Tom Mboya Street in the middle of the day.
The city centre, which had erstwhile been ghost-like was now teeming with people trying to reopen their businesses.
On Sunday, I stopped in Ruaka to buy meat in one of the butcheries. The butchery is like many other in Kenya – it doubles up as an eatery, where people enjoy the quintessential Kenyan delicacy, nyama choma straight from the charcoal grill. They usually wash the succulent roast meat down with sips of Kenya’s finest beers, usually ported from a neighbouring bar if the butchery is not also licenced as a bar.
Walking in I was horrified to find the butchery’s benches filled with people who seemed to have never heard of social distancing. I asked the butcher why his customers had thrown caution to the wind and he answered that corona was not a threat anymore; that it cannot stop people from eating meat.
“Didn’t you hear the President?” he asked, adding, “Corona cannot stop reggae” – a colloquial phrase to mean that Covid-19 could not stop people’s enjoyment of life. That loud statement was met with much approbation by the revellers. I stormed out a worried man.
On Tuesday, the Health CS expressed his frustration that crafty Kenyans had taken to ordering a sausage accompanied with two beers in eatery after eatery to find a way to spend time outside having their frothy liquid of choice outside their ostensibly oppressive homes.
“Watu wanakula sausage moja na beer mbili. Anaingia kwa restaurant ingine anakula sausage na beer mbili. Anaenda kwa ingine anaitisha machungwa na beer mbili eti ni dessert,”Cabinet Secretary for Health, Mutahi Kagwe
I have a morbid prediction: I think the estates (South C or South B) where most of the Eastleigh fled to is where Mr Kagwe will impose a more stringent lockdown next.
Worse, I have to double down on my prediction on April 25 that May is likely to be a harrowing month in this war as the numbers are likely to soar given our bad habits.
The Government is caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, it must take extraordinarily strict measures to curb the spread of the virus and on the other, there is massive pressure to keep the economy afloat and allow people to make a living.
Unfortunately, the President has to make a choice between these two imperatives because he cannot have both. A hybrid of measures to achieve these two goals is not yet an option.
If anything, if I were a presidential advisor, I would have made a case for a strict lockdown in Nairobi and Mombasa and I would urge that the Government maintains the urgency of the war. This would be done by transferring the bulk of our resources away from staid sectors like infrastructure development, which got a huge chunk of Kenya’s supplementary budget, in favour of healthcare infrastructure and welfare.
Here’s the truth: The economy is likely to tank. The question is whether it tanks now and keep most people alive to fight another day or later amidst many deaths. The choice Mr Kenyatta makes is likely to be his most enduring legacy.