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War on coronavirus: Kenyan leaders should learn from China

Wednesday March 25 2020

Medics test protective gear at Mbagathi

Medics test protective gear at Mbagathi Hospital during the launch of an isolation and treatment centre for the new coronavirus disease -2019, dubbed Covid-19, in Nairobi on March 6. PHOTO | FILE| NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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A pandemic without precedent. The biggest lesson we have learnt is that when it comes to dealing with a pandemic of this scale, what counts most is the capacity of the State to execute and to deliver good results.

The Chinese have demonstrated to the world that they are ahead of everybody when it comes to capacity to execute and to implement successful responses to pandemics of the scale of the coronavirus.

It is the height of irony and of the sign of the times we live today that countries in the developed West have now been forced go to China, cap — in-hand — to seek assistance.

Last week, France announced it had received about one million face masks from the Chinese government. The Chinese have also sent medical teams and supplies to Italy.

Mr Jack Ma, founder of the Chinese e-commerce colossus Alibaba and the country’s richest man, has donated surgical masks and testing equipment to many Western countries, including the US.

I also find it intriguing that most of the countries that have succeeded in controlling the spread of the virus are the autocratic East Asian countries of Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong and China.



Do we have capacity and the wherewithal to successfully execute what governments in the rest of the world are implementing to control the virus? Trends show that affected countries are taking drastic action such a repurposing existing buildings into health facilities, building new hospitals, and identifying and designating new hospital sites.

Which begs the question: If the worst came to pass, are we really capable of responding by, for instance, immediately taking over the halls of residence of both the University of Nairobi and Kenyatta University and quickly repurposing the facilities to serve as temporary hospitals?

We all agree that Health CS Mutahi Kagwe has performed very well, especially when it comes to public messaging.

The daily briefings Mr Kagwe has been giving have gone a long way in calming down public anxieties and fears. And, we must agree that in terms of crafting and timing the raft of social distancing measures that have been unveiled so far, the government has put a good effort.


Where the government hasn’t performed very well is in enforcement of compliance to the social distancing measures it has announced. When I visited Gikomba yesterday, I observed milling crowds going about the business as if unaware that social distancing restrictions existed.

Gikomba is the largest open air market in Nairobi. Did the government act too late in implementing draconian social distancing measures such as closure of schools and universities? Should the closure of schools and universities have been immediately followed by even more draconian measures such as forced home isolation, restrictions on non household contact, quarantines and widespread lockdowns in parts of Nairobi?

Opinion remains divided on these issues. But there is a new body of scientific opinion that warns that introduction of draconian social distancing measures too early risks allowing transmission of the virus to return once the draconian measures are lifted, especially in circumstances where the population has not developed immunity.

According to this school of thought, it is necessary to balance the timing of draconian measures with the scale of infection.


Yet I still think that in terms of disaster preparedness, most of what the government has done does not inspire much confidence. I want to suggest to Mr Kagwe that when he calls his next press briefings, he should give us specifics and details on the level of preparedness.

He must go beyond just dolling out statistics on new infection rates, on announcing new social distancing measures, and on telling us how arriving foreigners are being quarantined at borders and airports.

What we want are details about the buildings or facilities we plan to take over to repurpose into hospitals, the sites we are designating for new facilities, how we went to construct field hospitals.

We want to hear what the government is doing to rump up testing capacity, the number of testing kits at the disposal of the government and how we plan to increase the number of ICU beds.

We need statistics on the number of ventilators, respirators and face masks in the country and how they will be distributed. I read somewhere that in Taiwan people are now ordering masks online. We must follow China’s approach of early detection, early quarantine, early treatment,

Having made progress, China has now turned attention to controlling infections coming into the country from overseas.

The government must show and demonstrate that it is preparing for the worst.