As a third of the world went into lockdown, the Kenyan government was at a crossroads.
It was torn between following expert advice to impose a total shutdown to reduce the coronavirus spread and saving its citizens from plunging deeper into the financial abyss.
In the end, President Uhuru Kenyatta issued a nationwide curfew from 7pm to 5am starting Friday.
However, he warned that he will not hesitate to impose a total lockdown if Kenyans continue ignoring government directives.
The president’s announcement from State House followed a day-long National Security Council meeting that was trying to weigh whether time was ripe to lock Kenyans in their houses.
“We have taken these basic measures to protect the life and health of our citizens. If these actions are deemed inadequate, we shall take more drastic measures to ensure the rights of our citizens to life and property are maintained. Persons not authorised to move shall be prohibited within these hours,” the President said.
Additionally, operations of the Kenya Ferry Service were transferred to the Kenya Police Service, which is now charged with enhancing safety on the Likoni channel, which has come under scrutiny in recent days.
And by invoking the Public Order Act, President Kenyatta avoided for the second time ordering a total shutdown to give the government time to monitor the Covid-19 infection rate.
“Any person who contravenes any of the provisions of a curfew order shall be guilty of an offence and liable to a fine not exceeding Sh1,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding three months, or to both,” the Public Order Act states.
On Wednesday, the President Kenyatta appeared to give Kenyans time to take the coronavirus pandemic seriously and follow the directives on social distancing and isolation.
Save for bars, which have closed down, it has been business as usual for many Kenyans as they continue with their lives as if the country is not facing a pandemic.
“Social-distancing, whether we like it or not, shall be our new life until we conquer the pandemic,” the president said.
The government’s move comes as more countries across the world heeded the advice of scientists that the only way to slow down the spread of Covid-19 is by imposing movement restrictions on their populations.
However, the US and Europe have protested that such actions are placing the global economy at the risk of collapse and that there are better ways to deal with the pandemic.
So far, coronavirus infections in Kenya have taken the pattern of other countries where numbers double in the second week, creating a fear that they could soar in the coming weeks.
Such a scenario would almost certainly overwhelm the health system. By the end of Friday last week, Kenya had registered seven cases since the coronavirus was first reported on March 13.
This has jumped to 28 people in the past five days. And while the increase by 18 cases looks small and manageable, it represents a 257 per cent increase in just five days.
President Kenyatta admitted that the government is facing a difficult time as it juggles efforts to keep the transmission rates down and upholding the rights of its citizens or propping a collapsing economy.
Ordering a shutdown, according to deliberations Wednesday, would shutter Kenya’s economy while sending up to 70 per cent of Kenyans into financial oblivion as companies will have to shut down or send staff home.
Treasury argued that the ripple effects of shutting down the economy even for two weeks would make recovery difficult and in effect greatly hamper the government’s ability to honour its debt obligations.
As of December 2019, public debt amounted to Sh6.04 trillion, comprising Sh2.9 trillion (49 per cent) domestic debt and Sh3.1 trillion (51 per cent) in external debt.
So far, enforcement has been largely left to counties to effect shutdowns on markets and non-essential businesses in urban centres within their jurisdictions.
Kisumu, Kiambu, Mombasa and Eldoret are some of the counties that have effected some sort of partial lockdown.
“As voices asking for State intervention grow day by day and whether we recognise this or not, there will be merit if a shutdown is called,” said Amani National Congress leader Musalia Mudavadi.
“Perhaps the best way ahead now is for President Uhuru Kenyatta to order a periodised shutdown. This will wake us up to the harsh reality of what our conduct is leading us to,” he added.
A majority of the countries on lockdown are in Europe, which is currently the epicentre of the pandemic.
The countries in lockdown are United Kingdom, Australia, Italy, Denmark, Ireland, Spain, Germany, Portugal, Czech Republic, France, Belgium, Norway, China, Slovenia, Indonesia, El Salvador, New Zealand and Poland.
India, which announced a lockdown as from Tuesday, is under the most extensive shutdown after restricting the movement of its 1.3 billion citizens.
Italy, which has recorded the highest death toll from the virus, has banned all movement inside the country and closed non-essential businesses.
In Italy, police are patrolling the streets to check whether people have a valid reason to be outside.
Spain is extending its national lockdown by 15 days to April 11, while in the UK British Prime Minister Boris Johnson ordered a partial lockdown, giving police powers to fine or arrest anyone found to have left their homes or were found socialising in groups of two people or more.