COVID-19 RESPONSE

The role of county governments in coronavirus control

The Kenyan government has shown an unforgivable clumsiness in handling the pandemic.

In Summary

• To control the spread of the coronavirus to the counties, each county government should set up a properly resourced testing centre at the level five hospitals.

• This will provide 47 testing centres in addition to the two established by the national government.

CoG Chairman Wycliffe Oparanya during a press conference on County Governments’ preparedness in combating the COVID-19 in Nairobi on March 18, 2020.
CoG Chairman Wycliffe Oparanya during a press conference on County Governments’ preparedness in combating the COVID-19 in Nairobi on March 18, 2020.
Image: COUNCIL OF GOVERNORS

When the novel coronavirus was first reported, many Kenyans brushed it off as a foreign malady that was inconsistent with the black man’s burden.

Recent incidences have confirmed that the coronavirus is no respecter of race, class, age or region.

There was also a feeling that the coronavirus was a problem of the jet setting class in Nairobi.

The story of the corona positive Deputy Governor who infected others as he freely attended political and social events in Kilifi County, as well as the infected priest who presided over social and spiritual activities in Siaya County, have confirmed that this disease can easily be exported to counties beyond Nairobi.

The effects of the scourge are pervasive, with significant economic, social and political implications.

Due to this pervasiveness, the national government has taken charge of control and prevention measures despite health being a devolved function.

The Kenyan government, just like in many other more enlightened nations, has shown an unforgivable clumsiness in handling the pandemic.

Case in point is a decision to allow a Chinese airline to bring 239 passengers to Nairobi at a time when the pandemic was at its peak in mainland China.

The response of county governments to the pandemic has been equally uninspiring.

Their actions range from the closure of markets, banning of public gatherings, limiting access to hospitals and morgues, restrictions on public transport, banning of miraa and closure of bars and social centres.

One would have expected a more strategic response that focuses on stopping the spread, providing health care to those infected and creating an economic parachute to the sectors affected by the pandemic.

To control the spread of the coronavirus to the counties, each county government should set up a properly resourced testing centre at the level five hospitals.

This will provide 47 testing centres in addition to the two established by the national government.

The current practice where suspected victims have to be rushed to Nairobi in ambulances for testing is ridiculous and dangerous.

Each of the level five hospitals should also create isolation units with a minimum capacity of 100 beds, which will bring the national capacity to at least 5,000 beds.

The above proposals require money. Counties should review and reallocate their budgets from grand infrastructure projects to health.

Most county health budgets are consumed by salaries and allowances, leaving little room for acquisition of equipment and expansion of facilities.

To further finance health, county governments should reallocate budgets for foreign travel to public health initiatives aimed at sensitising the public on threats of the coronavirus and other health complications that affect respective counties.

An aggressive public health drive has the potential of creating jobs for unemployed graduates.

There is no doubt that the pandemic will have grave consequences on the already fragile economy.

Though the national government has not provided a clear direction on incentives to resurrect the economy, this is the time to expect the much-vaunted regional economic blocs to offer economic stimulus plans for their respective jurisdictions.

For example, the Lake Region Economic Bloc could initiate a marshall plan to revive fisheries and encourage aquaculture so as to bridge the gap created by an anticipated ban in Chinese fish imports.  

The other economic concern relates to the plight of business people who are saddled with loans and excessive tariffs.

County governments should waive fees and permits and offer a moratorium on outstanding rates.

This waiver would not have grave consequences on budgets since the majority of counties own source revenues contribute less than five per cent of total budgets.  

Finally, county governments should automate their processes and build capacity in virtual working, which includes teleworking and telemedicine.

Most county governments do not have the technological capacity to serve their customers remotely or to aid their staff to work from home.

Investments in cloud solutions, virtual private networks and voice over internet protocols need not be costly.

There are many pocket-friendly open-source options whose implementation could be guided by an enterprise architecture defined by the national government.

Anybody who claims to know how the Corona pandemic will pan out is playing a dangerous game of being God.

The uncertainties we face will require everyone to hope for the best but prepare for the worst.

County governments must prepare for a reduction in equitable share in subsequent years as national revenue forecasts grow dim.

All of us must be prepared to do more with little.  

Moses Otieno Kajwang’ is the Senator, Homa Bay County and Chairman, Senate Public Accounts and Investments Committee