Kenya’s dilemma in re-opening economy

Kenya faces a dilemma in re-opening the economy as the government seeks to balance economic recovery and taming new infections.

The option to ease restrictions and counter the spread of Covid-19 infections at the same time is expected to be the government ultimate test as the National Security Council meets to review containment measures.

To stop community spread dead on its tracks, the government implemented a nationwide curfew from 7pm to 5am on March 27, a measure consequently extended into mid-May.

Further, government moved to enact the restriction on movement in and out of four counties on April 6 including the counties of Nairobi, Mombasa, Kwale and Kilifi — measures which still stand and run to next week.

Other targeted restrictions have included a cessation of movement in and out of Mandera County and most recently, partial lockdown measures inside Nairobi’s Eastleigh and Mombasa’s Old town.

However, the government now faces pressure to lift restrictions pushed in large part by disappearing personal incomes and jobs.

Last month, Education Cabinet Secretary George Magoha was bemused by the return to traffic snarl-ups while Health CS Mutahi Kagwe has equally been dismayed by the return to normalcy inside cities and major towns.

Titus Maina, an economist with the Kenya Business Guide however argues the pressure on lifting restrictions is warranted.

“The government did not offer any incentives by imposing health measures even as measures imposed left the majority of Kenyans without a source of income. People have resumed business and have to go back to work as staying at home does not put food on the table,” he said.

However Maina warns of the risk of new cluster infections upon a premature re-opening even as he believes government must endeavour to curve a re-opening amidst the stay of the pandemic.

“This is not a passing cloud and we must find ways to live with the virus and we therefore need a concrete plan to reopen the economy,” he added.

On Wednesday, the World Health Organisation (WHO) warned the virus could be here to stay, saying it could become endemic like HIV/AIDs as it warned against any attempt to predict its circulation.

WHO Director General Tedros Ghebreyesus further cautions countries against resuming normalcy in a premature manner.

Kenya Health Federation Chairman Amit Thakker calls for a carefully balanced approach as he also worries of an exponential rise in cases upon an unplanned economic re-opening.

“The equation between public health and the economy has to be carefully planned. The push to re-open the economy is valid but caution must be exercised,” he said.

“We have to go in a phased and gradual manner indicated by both the virus spread and health readiness. By this, we must continue to observe the trend in spread against the number of tests conducted. If we see a slowdown we can increase the number of open sectors, if we see a rise, we should dial down.”

The risk in hindsight is at the forefront of the Covid-19 National Emergency Response Committee even as pressure mounts from weakening economic levers.

“This virus maybe with us for a long time to come and it therefore requires us to retain our containment measures and to and to chat a way forward to ensure we can live with the coronavirus. This is a new normal.” Health Chief Administrative Secretary Mercy Mwangangi told a news conference on Thursday.

Beyond Kenyan borders, the risk of premature re-openings to the economy visible.

Earlier this week, Lebanon was forced to reverse its restriction measures and reinstate lockdowns as cases surged following the re-opening of its economy.

On Wednesday, Iraq and South Korea reported peak infections upon re-opening, a feature further observed in Germany and Singapore.

Moreover, authorities in the Chinese city of Wuhan orders new to tests to each citizen after new cluster cases within its economy in spite of implementing a 76-day lockdown to choke new infections.