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NECESSARY BUT RISKY

Is Kenya ready to lift lockdown?

Without data, we're flying blind and taking a perilous gamble on easing lockdown measures.

In Summary
  • The combination of Covid-19 and lockdown measures are costly for developing countries. Hence, easing lockdown measures is good for the economy.
  • But it is fraught with health risks that could dangerously undermine economic recovery goals.
President Uhuru Kenyatta.
President Uhuru Kenyatta.
Image: PSCU

President Uhuru Kenyatta has given the strongest hint that the Kenyan economy will not endure lockdown measures much longer. In his address to the nation on Saturday, May 23, the President said, “We cannot keep on telling Kenyans to stay at home, or that they should not tend to their business or even go to work.”

With just about 58,842 samples, out of which 1,214 have tested positive as of May 24, it seems premature to contemplate easing or removing lockdown and putting the burden of preventing Covid-19 infections solely on the shoulders of individuals. Countries that have contemplated ending or easing lockdown have conducted more tests and have been reasonably persuaded that the curve is flattening.

The combination of Covid-19 and lockdown measures are costly for developing countries. Hence, easing lockdown measures is good for the economy. But it is fraught with health risks that could dangerously undermine economic recovery goals.

And the President understands this because he warned that Covid-19 infections will surge when lockdown measures are eased. According to him, the government has played its part. It is now the responsibility of individuals to ensure they comply with all the non-pharmaceutical interventions: handwashing, wearing a mask and social/physical distancing.

When and how to ease lockdown must be informed by data. I am not convinced that Kenya has enough or reliable data upon which to determine when to ease or end lockdown. With just 60,000 tests for a population of 47 million Kenyans, we do not have a high-resolution picture of how and where infections are spreading.

While Nairobi and Mombasa account for about 80 per cent of 1,124 Covid-19 positive cases, we have no idea about the incidence or distribution of Covid-19. Recently it has been shown that long-distance truck drivers are a high-risk group. But generally, we have no idea about the places and people most likely to spread the coronavirus.

Don’t get me wrong. I agree with President Kenyatta that we cannot keep Kenyans locked up at home. Businesses are eager to reopen. But opening the economy with less than just 0.12 per cent test rate is disconcerting, especially when the positivity rate is about 2 per cent.

Kenya is not alone; South Africa is also easing lockdown measures. But there is an important contrast here. South Africa has mobilised 28,000 community health workers to identify people with symptoms and more than 7 million, or more than one in 10, people have been screened.

Iran has been staggered by a veritable second wave because authorities removed lockdown too soon. All the early gains have vaporised and the country will have to work very hard to flatten the curve a second time, at a colossal cost to the economy and human health.

Without data, we are flying blind and taking a perilous gamble on easing lockdown measures. I am confident that President Kenyatta will lay out clear and tough conditions for easing lockdown. These must include enhanced testing and aggressive contact tracing. We cannot afford to ignite a Covid-19 surge.