On the day the Kenyan shilling plunged to its lowest level against the US dollar in nine years, the government on Thursday came up with an elaborate plan to fight the spread of the coronavirus while avoiding a national lockdown that could sent the country into its worst recession.
A Cabinet meeting resolved that the country is not ready for a national shutdown, for fear that it would, in addition to paralysing the economy, trigger political and social chaos. Instead, the government is considering “localised” lockdowns.
Sources with knowledge of the meeting’s proceedings said the government will undertake a density mapping of the country — to find out who lives where and how they can be provided with food, water and security. The government will use its reserves to provide these services before considering locking down parts of the country.
The shilling took a major hit, to exchange at a record low of Sh109.3 against the dollar in Thursday’s trading session, sliding past the worst record of October 2011, against strong rumours of an impending lockdown.
The announcement by Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe that no new cases had been confirmed is likely to ease pressure on the shilling today.
Meanwhile, the private sector continued to pile pressure on the government to provide incentives to protect jobs.
The Kenya Association of Manufacturers suggested halving taxes, including VAT, for small and medium enterprises (SMEs).
KAM also wants corporate taxes to be slashed from 30 per cent to 15 per cent for the next six months while the government should also consider zero-rating VAT on essentials including soap, tissue, sanitisers and staple foods for the next six months, among other measures.
Other measures to contain the spread of the virus agreed by the Cabinet include a plan to expand checking for symptoms in the general population.
However, the government, according to the sources, does not anticipate random testing for the general population because the cost is prohibitive at $13.50 (Sh1,470) per kit.
Kenya is relying heavily on donations and is believed to have less than 10,000 test kits.
The Cabinet also resolved that the government would review the data to verify suspected cases of the coronavirus in private hospitals.
Reports indicated that a prominent personality was being treated for the coronavirus at a private hospital in Nairobi.
The Nation has learnt that the government’s security machinery, including all military officers, police, prison officers and National Youth Service personnel, have been put on standby and those on leave are being recalled in preparation for a lockdown, should one become necessary.
With an incubation period of about 14 days, patterns across the world in countries where the epidemic has struck have shown that the number of infections practically starts doubling from the second week. Kenya’s first case was reported a week ago.
And while China, the country that reported the first cases, yesterday announced that it had recorded no new local infections for the first time since the crisis began three months ago, the rest of the world is still witnessing high infection rates.
Should the number of infections soar dramatically in the coming week, there may be an aggressive shift in the national strategy to slow down the arrival of new cases in hospital so as to ease the burden on the country’s fragile healthcare system.
Among the government’s biggest fears is that overburdening the health system with coronavirus patients would most likely cripple it while at the same time reducing odds that individual patients will survive.
The other fear among officials is what would happen if the virus finds its way to densely populated areas like urban slums or to rural areas where the population of elderly people is high, health systems are weaker, and residents have not been properly sensitised on how to guard against catching Covid-19.
The two scenarios would most likely call for a national emergency to be declared. For now, the disease is being treated as a public health crisis but it is slowly moving to the second phase, which is societal disruption.
This explains why the Public Health Act was invoked last Friday to enable health officials to deal with the disease without restrictions regarding the privacy of citizens.
Other provisions of the law being employed is the tracking down of people who have made contact with those who have tested positive and asking those suspected of having the disease to self-isolate for 14 days.
Globally, Covid-19 has maintained a steady 33 per cent increase in new infections per day since it was first announced, the Johns Hopkins University’s Centre for Systems and Engineering reported.
But what is lacking in the Kenyan government strategy — compared with what has been witnessed in other countries that have managed to slow down infection rates like South Korea and Japan — is aggressive testing in the population and enforcement of self-isolation, social distancing and hygiene rules.
Not all public service vehicles are providing sanitisers to their passengers as directed by the government, and the Kenya Ferry Services only started enforcing the hand washing rule for those crossing the Likoni channel on Thursday.
The government has, on two occasions this week, announced it is ready to implement a total shutdown if the social distancing it has recommended does not work as it should. “This is not a joke. This is not a rehearsal. Nobody should take lightly what is happening to our nation,” said Health CS Kagwe on Tuesday.
Initially frowned upon by the World Health Organisation (WHO) when China restricted all forms of travel to and from Wuhan province -- the epicentre of the disease -- several countries that have been hit by the coronavirus have implemented some form of shutdown.
By our count, at least 80 countries and territories have adopted sweeping measures to tame the spread of the virus, ranging from shutting down airports, imposing travel restrictions, and completely sealing borders.
Highly placed sources in the security sector have told us that one of the measures being considered is ordering a ban on upcountry travel or non-essential public transport in urban areas like Nairobi in order to minimise movement.
Additionally, social places like bars, nightclubs, gyms, spas, concert venues, airports, restaurants, cinemas, social halls, neighbourhood swimming pools and hotels could also be ordered shut.
Supermarkets and pharmacies will, however, be left open as the other businesses that do not need large crowds in order to operate, like shops. And, while restaurants and affected shops can shift to online delivery in order to operate, businesses like bars, cinemas and nightclubs do not have this option, and that would leave those who work there uncertain about their next salary.