Ideas & Debate

How Kenya can contain Covid without disruptive lockdown

President Uhuru Kenyatta

President Uhuru Kenyatta addresses the nation from State House, Nairobi on March 12, 2021.

On March 26, President Uhuru Kenyatta issued a raft of measures to contain the third wave of Covid-19 infections in the country. As the private sector, we commend the government for the timely health measures in an attempt to flatten the curve. We, however, observe with concern that the current public health crisis has devastated the local economy and the measures in place are likely to aggravate the suffering.

The restriction of movement out of Nairobi, Machakos, Nakuru, Kiambu and Kajiado has disrupted the country’s supply chain, as the five counties contribute to 60 percent of the GDP. Distortion of transport logistics will inhibit movement of agricultural products from county to county. Inefficiency in the transport system, coupled with the increased fuel prices, will disable the movement of supplies and raw materials to and from the five counties, which are also the country’s key manufacturing hubs. This is likely to lead to increased cost of living and food shortages.

Our major concern is the disconnect between the situation envisioned by the measures in place and the lived experiences of the resilient and hardworking Kenyans, who were just about to revive their businesses after the first and second waves of the pandemic. With the lockdown measures, their efforts will be rendered futile. They will be pulled backwards, and will have to commence the recovery process afresh once the economy reopens.

BUSINESS CONTINUITY

We have received the appeal of members of the Kenya National Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KNCCI), who are representative of all business sectors. On behalf of the business community, it is our plea that certain measures be reconsidered and incentives given to the businesses to ensure continuity and sustainability. Our efforts seek to curtail distortion in supply chains, lower the cost of production, increase the availability of finance for companies; stimulating demand and markets, prevent business closures and loss of jobs.

To improve financial support to businesses, we urge banks and other financial institutions to reconsider extending existing and affected loan repayments to preserve the liquidity of companies. Additionally, the banks can consider moratoriums and commercial rates deferral and subsidies to ensure that the business assets are not auctioned for default.

We recommend the provision of economic stimulus as a major incentive in sustaining the micro and small businesses, whose lifespan is heavily threatened by the lockdown. This should prioritise the Jua kali sector and other informal businesses. In addition, the government ought to consider economic stimulus measures such as the immediate activation of the SME guarantee scheme and reduction of taxes on essential imports and goods. We recommend that county emergency response committees be set up to support ongoing trade and commercial activities within the respective counties. In addition, the provision of essential passes to qualifying business groups would ensure the continuity of inter-county movement of goods and exchange of services to prevent shortage of essential products.

On labour and job protection, companies and employers should not lay off employees, but instead explore the possibility of working remotely for their staff, and workforce retraining to adjust to the new way of doing business. Based on our observations from previous lockdown, hotel take-away services of food and beverages were not effective for most food vendors and consumers. This was attributed to inadequate hygiene facilities like clean water and soap, and a lack of proper packing containers in the small restaurants (vibandas) which provide food to hundreds of thousands of casual labourers’ in the informal sector.

Such take-away services could lead to the spread of water-borne diseases like cholera and food-poisoning. Noting that hotels, restaurants and bars are a big source of employment, we are of the opinion that measures curtailing their operation be revised.

We recommend that the tourism, entertainment and hospitality industries be allowed to re-open and work within strict Covid-19 protocols and operation guidelines to aid their recovery, as well as enable provision of the services to the public. We further urge the government to reconsider the operation of local airlines, which play a key role in promoting local tourism and business logistics.

Most Kenyans use the public transport system, which could one of the potential areas for the spread of the virus if prevention guidelines are disregarded. We support the government’s move to ensure adequate social distancing inside buses and matatus. We recommend that the service operators work within the Covid-19 protocols and that the vehicles be regularly fumigated and sanitisers provided through their respective operations and groups.

The rapid increase in the cost of fuel has already prompted matatu owners to hike fares for public transport. We recommend that the matter be addressed so as not to overburden the millions of commuters that use public transport on daily basis.

We support the government ban on large gatherings and commit to reinforce positive behaviour among the business community. We will continue to urge all businesses to adhere to guidelines on sanitation, social distancing, wearing of PPEs, temperature checks, and disinfection of common areas. We are optimistic that individual and collective efforts towards observing the Covid-19 prevention measures will defeat the enemy that is the virus sooner than we anticipate.

Borrowing from the community-based model that was effective in managing the pandemic in China, we urge every person to be responsible for themselves in order to protect their families and all those around them.

We are enthusiastic about the vaccination programme, which brings a ray of hope in the fight against this pandemic. In order to flatten the curve faster than the anticipated two months, KNCCI is of the opinion that the lockdown be lifted, and instead the following strategies be adopted to curb the spread of the virus and ultimately manage the pandemic:

A lockdown of four days should be imposed in Nairobi County, which is mapped by the MoH as having the highest positivity rate. During the four days, mass PCR testing be conducted targeting residents of the county. Identified as positive cases should be isolated in home-based care and put on treatment. As the testing is ongoing, the vaccination drive should be stepped up simultaneously, with all those who are not on treatment given the Covid jab.

RED ZONES

From the results of the mass testing, areas with the highest positive rates should be marked as ‘Red’ zones, while those with lower rates of infection should be marked as ‘Green’ zones.

Strict enforcement should then be in place to ensure that the people in the ‘Red’ zone don’t move to the ‘Green’ zones until mass testing, isolation and vaccination have been conducted.

This zoning model worked well in China during the peak of its pandemic and could be borrowed as best practice for Kenya at this time. In this process, attention should be paid to those in the informal sector, such as the Jua Kali artisans, mama mbogas, hawkers and matatu opertors.

Small-scale traders who would ordinarily not have the time to queue for the vaccine in local hospitals, yet their nature of work puts them at high risk of being infected or spreading the virus should also receive special attention. After the process has been completed in Nairobi, the same process could be escalated to the next infected county, and onto the next, until citizens in all counties have been duly vaccinated.

We recommend that the government consider our propositions, which are premised on the realities of the common mwanachi and the average business person in Kenya.

These are the citizens who toil everyday to ensure livelihoods for their families. They contribute to the national revenue and the GDP of the country. We cannot pay lip service to their welfare.

Mr Ngatia is the president of the Kenya National Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KNCCI)