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Covid-19 safety measures must be well informed, not escapist

Tuesday July 14 2020
BUS

A conductor loading luggage on a waiting Matatu that operates between Kitui, Machakos and Nairobi on July 9, 2020 at Machakos Country Bus. PHOTO | DENNIS ONSONGO | NATION MEDIA GROUP

By MACHARIA GAITHO

President Kenyatta will be guilty of reckless endangerment of human life if relaxation of the restrictions imposed to contain the spread of coronavirus result in a sharp spike in infections and casualties.

But he could also be lauded for a brave measure that got the economy running again and people back to work.

While easing the curbs on gatherings and movement has been praised, what seems to escape many is that not a single one of the conditions precedent to a return to normalcy has been met.

It is now established wisdom that a country can only start going back to normal once the rate of new infections reaches a peak and starts falling.

From day one, when the night curfew was imposed, schools closed and large gatherings banned to halt movement into and out of the Nairobi, Mombasa, Kwale, Kilifi and Mandera hotspots, we were told that the restrictions would only be lifted once the infection curve flattened.

FLATTENING CURVE

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The fact is that we are very far from flattening the curve. If anything, we’re witnessing a sharp rise in the number of infections.

Every other country where curbs on travel and crowding have been prematurely lifted has witnessed an upsurge of new infections, reversing gains already made.

The United States provides the perfect example where political pressure, and the madcap views of President Donald Trump and his band of extremist right-wing zealots, has seen defiance of some of the simple measures designed to keep Covid-19 at bay. The results are there to see in the runaway infection rates.

Brazil is another country where coronavirus denier President Jair Bolsonaro has effectively sabotaged the measures designed to contain the pandemic. The outcome has been one of the highest infection rates anywhere and, for his pains, a president struck by the virus.

President Kenyatta is not an illiterate. He has a decent education, is inquisitive and fairly well-read, and has at his disposal vast technical and intellectual resources to help him shape policy.

Before relaxing the movement restrictions, he must have been well briefed on the American and Brazilian situations, as well as experiences from Italy, Britain, China, Spain and other coronavirus hotspots. He knew very well that opening up Kenya prematurely carried great risk. Yet he probably had little choice in a situation where the economic meltdown had become politically untenable.

TOOK CALCULATED RISK

If easing restrictions will reopen factories and markets and get people back to work, the President will earn some vital breathing space. He took a calculated risk but, in time-honoured political fashion, also moved to cover himself by declaiming any responsibility for adverse consequences.

President Kenyatta’s message to his subjects as he announced the lifting of the ban on movement into and out of hotspot counties was very simple: You are on your own and it will be your fault if infected.

That was not a message from a well-crafted strategy but words of surrender.

It’s true, as he emphasised, that the government cannot police and enforce good behaviour on every citizen. Indeed, when it’s largely a simple issue of common-sense precautions and personal hygiene that will protect one from the virus, it becomes a matter of individual responsibility rather than government fiat.

However, a people who do not want to protect themselves by wearing face masks, observing social distance and avoiding crowded gatherings must, of necessity, feel the heavy hand of the State. If they want to commit suicide that is fine, but the innocents they could infect must also be protected.

Political leadership comes with onerous responsibilities. There will always be pressure to satisfy demands of the masses but, ultimately, one entrusted with such an important office must make decisions based on what is best for the country and the people rather than short-term interests.

Often, these decisions will be unpopular but very necessary.

At this moment, we can only hope and pray that the decision to relax Covid-19 restrictions was informed by careful analysis of the situation rather than caving in to pressure.

Immediately after the movement restrictions were eased, the number of Covid-19-positive cases rose sharply, reaching highs of 20 per cent of all individuals tested.

It is too early at this stage to attribute the escalation to the opening up of the country, but it is a reminder that the threat of infection lurks in every corner.

We must, therefore, take the easing of restrictions as a signal to be even more vigilant, rather than as a licence to get back to the life of wild abandon.

[email protected] www.gaitho.co.ke @MachariaGaitho

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