WAIHIGA: Why Kenya should monitor East Africa’s response to coronavirus

    One of the earliest known Greek poets, identified by the single name Hesiod once said: “A bad neighbour is a misfortune, as much as a good one is a great blessing.”

    This is true at the local level but also very significant at the national level where neighbouring countries can affect your international standing by virtue of association alone.

    But before we talk about regional dynamics, let’s get a status update on what 2020 has been like so far for Kenya.

    In late December 2019; a section of Kenyans, in a poll, cited unemployment and the high cost of living as some of the things they hoped to leave behind as they crossed over into a new year.

    I wonder how they now feel about 2020 and COVID-19.

    Experts tell us that 81 people have so far tested positive for the new coronavirus in Kenya and that the next few weeks are crucial in flattening the curve of new infections.

    With this information, it was surprising to see a regional media house publish an advertisement about a food festival slated for early June.

    Surely that goes against the rule of social distancing which we are told is crucial in slowing down the spread of this virus.

    Resume normal operations

    AMREF Health Africa Group CEO Githinji Gitahi, in response to the advertisement from the media house, said it would take approximately 4-5 months for life to resume some form of normalcy in Kenya.

    Thus, if we are to follow Dr. Gitahi’s argument, then Kenyans who had put their plans on hold because of COVID-19 can only hope to resume normal operations from August or September 2020.

    However, once Kenya gets the virus under control, the next question will be what measures will be put in place to prevent another flare-up from external sources.

    Until a vaccine is found, the chances of an infection recurring in some part of the country will be quite possible.

    One can almost predict that there will be new protocols at every airport before you are allowed to leave your country or enter another country.

    This might make it difficult for entities like the East African Community to truly integrate at a time like this when each country seems to be handling COVID-19 in different ways.

    UNCTAD Secretary General Mukhisa Kituyi expressed surprise at the fact that Tanzania has not closed its churches and mosques.

    He wondered how Tanzania came to this verdict and yet Mecca, Islam’s holiest city in Saudia Arabia, is closed for worship and at St Peters Square in Rome, all is silent save for the virtual sermon of the Pope.

    Somalia relying on Kenya’s testing centre

    The fight against the coronavirus is only as strong as its weakest link and if one country continues to allow for mass gatherings or does little or no testing, then East Africa remains vulnerable despite individual successes.

    Somalia has five cases of the coronavirus and their leadership seems to be taking the pandemic quite seriously with officials educating the public via loudspeakers or leaflets.

    International flights have also been suspended whilst bars, restaurants and schools have been closed. Nevertheless, without a laboratory to test the samples they have to wait for the results from a WHO-certified centre in Kenya.

    South Sudan has not reported any positive case of the coronavirus and while many would be skeptical about such good news because it is unclear how many tests have been conducted, it is reassuring to know that their Health Ministry recently ordered a lockdown of borders and banned international flights.

    Burundi has two confirmed cases with President Pierre Nkurunzinza’s spokesperson recently quoted as saying: “Burundi is an exception because it is a country that has put God first.”

    However Human Rights Watch claim that several sources in the medical and humanitarian field have expressed concerns that the authorities are not conducting enough tests to understand the extent to which the disease may be spreading.

    Internet shutdown in parts of Ethiopia

    Ethiopia, that is not in the East African Community, has 29 reported cases of the virus with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed seemingly keen to navigate his country through this crisis as quickly as possible with the support of the African Union.

    Unfortunately, access to COVID-19 information in some parts of the country remains limited especially in Western Oromia where according to the Human Rights Watch, a government-imposed shutdown of internet and phone services continues to take effect.

    Rwanda and Uganda seem to be taking COVID-19 quite seriously with both nations currently in the midst of a 14-day lockdown.

    President Yoweri Museveni’s government has announced 44 positive cases of the new coronavirus in the country whilst President Paul Kagame’s count stands at 82.

    The secret to normalizing relations in the region is ensuring that every country plays its part and is transparent in revealing the extent of the spread of the virus within its borders and how this has been dealt with.

    If not, citizens from countries that were perceived to have taken the virus too lightly might find it difficult to navigate around the region in the days to come.