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Ideas & Debate

It is time to learn about living with coronavirus

 Covid-19 outbreak
Abstract background for Covid-19 outbreak crisis to collapse the global economy. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

The world is gradually coming to the grim realisation that Covid-19 might be here to stay; that we’ve moved from a pandemic disease outbreak to an endemic, as in regular, disease condition. There are no more “shining stars” as China, South Korea and Germany struggle with new infections following reopening, while others like the United States reopened before they had “flattened the curve”.

As the New York Times reported this week, “countries are now moving from (socially and economically) damaging lockdowns to targeted ways to find and stop outbreaks before they become third or fourth waves”. Relentless testing, tracing and monitoring, proactive official quarantine and isolation responses, tight border management and constant citizen reminders on hygiene and social distancing are part of this “new abnormal”. Welcome to 2020, the Chinese Year of the Rat.

Africa’s Covid-19 story so far is one about 16 percent of the world’s population with four percent of cases (340,000) and two percent of fatalities (9,000). South Africa accounts for a third of African cases, and recoveries, and one in four fatalities.

It has tested over two percent of its people (1.5 million tests), which is proportionately ten times Kenya’s own testing to date. Ghana (twice as many tests as Kenya), Ethiopia and Uganda have also tested more; as have Rwanda and Senegal, relative to population size.

Almost one in five tests in Nigeria have been positive; South Africa’s running at eight percent, Ghana is above five percent, and Kenya’s between three and four percent. On recoveries, Uganda’s at almost nine in every ten cases (they have no fatalities yet), Ghana’s around three in four, Senegal’s a little over two in three, South Africa’s at fifty percent and Kenya’s slightly above one recovery in three cases, along with Nigeria.

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In this seven country subset, Kenya and Nigeria top fatality rates at one in 40, while only Ethiopia (5,000 cases, 78 fatalities) didn’t impose a lockdown, relying on strong social messaging instead.

The simplified story from these data is that “Africa is not a country”. The public health emergency notwithstanding, each country’s response reflects, for better or worse, its own political, social and economic context. Some has been “copycat stuff”, some of us have a more Western gaze than others.

All of these countries have eased lockdown restrictions in view of growing economic hardship, and social dissonance. Kenya awaits news on its next steps following the extension of movement restrictions by 30 days to July 6.

This extension has offered our various Covid-19 committees and task forces time to prepare strategically coherent and tactically adept messaging and direction for the people on Covid-19.

Let’s recall the scenarios President Uhuru Kenyatta presented on June 6 (we were at 0.1 percent in testing then). Twenty percent relaxation of restrictions would cause a 200,000 case peak in December with 30,000 fatalities. 40 percent relaxation would lead to a 300,000 case peak in November with 40,000 dead, while 60 percent relaxation would peak cases at 450,000 in October with 45,000 dead.

Indirectly, this implied that zero relaxation (continued restrictions) would peak at, say, 100,000-150,000 cases in September with, say, 10,000-15,000 deaths (we are now at 5,000 plus cases with 130 deaths at 0.2 percent targeted, not randomised testing).

The modelling had also suggested a “do nothing” scenario in March would have led to 800,000 cases by July and 2.4 million by August with 75,000 dead. The numbers were pretty scary, and we got pretty scared.

Now that Covid-19 is here to stay, what should we expect to hear from President Kenyatta in his next address ten days from now? First, the health capacity answer. That counties are ready to handle surveillance, testing, tracing, quarantine, treatment and isolation, especially with regard to inter-county movement.

Second, the economic reopening answer. That strict guidelines and modalities are in place to permit and monitor a phased reopening of the economy for both essential and non-essential services.

Third, the societal living answer. As with the economy, guidelines to permit and monitor reopening of social sites, including places of worship, entertainment and other gatherings, especially for our politicians and political parties. Staggered schooling might be part of the answer for education as well.

Finally, something on Covid-19 and ICT (isn’t there a Task Force?), beyond complaints about kids watching porn, and stealthily marking our phones for possible contact tracing. Self-compliance, agility and responsiveness are the new buzzwords we must add to resilience, sustainability and self-reliance.

Oh, and from all of this? No more countrywide curfew, or partial lockdown in Nairobi and Mombasa. Because, in this “new abnormal”, we must “learn to live with coronavirus”, as the Times aptly puts it.

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