Kenya: Uhuru Advisers Split On Whether to Lock Down As Virus Cases Surge

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Do we close down the country again or learn to live with the coronavirus? That is the question President Uhuru Kenyatta's advisers were Saturday evening grappling with as the Head of State prepared to issue yet another review of Covid-19 restrictions.

With the number of positive cases continuing to soar, the glimmer of hope so far is that the number of recoveries has been higher than that of those found with the virus every time the Ministry of Health releases its daily Covid-19 situation report.

Those within the President's circle who are against locking down Kenya again are using this balance between daily infections and recoveries to push for inter-county borders to remain open while continuing with the phased reopening of the economy.

On the flip side, those who want the country shut down again, including some governors, argue that the health system could be overrun in a matter of months unless the spread of the virus is contained.

GOVERNORS DISAGREE

During a virtual meeting on Thursday, the governors disagreed on how to go about the lockdown, with some suggesting locking down the three counties of West Pokot, Baringo and Samburu that have not registered cases yet and leaving the rest to their devices. This, they said, will prevent the virus from spreading to the counties.

However, the Nation has also learnt that the governors from the said counties were not for the idea that their counties be locked. Others proposed a lockdown of Nairobi County which is the hotspot of the virus and has led to the spread to other counties.

"Nairobi, being an economic hub for many, is hard to lock down, and because the infections are already here with us, we should now focus on how to prevent the virus from killing people rather than locking people who already have the virus from continuing with their business," said an official who attended the meeting.

By Saturday evening, the Nation learnt, the option of a second lockdown was not on the cards yet, but things could change between Sunday and Monday when President Kenyatta is expected to meet with governors to assess the situation.

CLOSE DOWN RESTAURANTS

The Ministry of Heath Saturday hinted at closing down restaurants again since they are flouting the Covid-19 rules.

Speaking during the Covid-19 briefing, Director of Public Health Francis Kuria warned that stern action will be taken against restaurants owners.

"I do not know what will come out of tomorrow's meeting but if the President decides to close them they should not complain because they asked for it," Dr Kuria said.

On Saturday, Kenya recorded 375 from 2,052 samples, bringing the national caseload to 16,643 from 268,154 samples tested so far.

The meeting between the Head of State and governors will assess the counties' preparedness to handle a spike in coronavirus infections and review the effects of lifting containment measures nearly three weeks ago.

The meeting had initially been scheduled for last Friday but was postponed in order to allow the county executives time to agree on a common position on the pandemic.

SECOND NAIROBI LOCKDOWN

While a section of governors has demanded a second lockdown of Nairobi, another wants things to remain the way they are. Their argument is that the first lockdown did very little to stop the spread of the virus, and that the fatality rates are still too low.

In any case, they say, the claim that our health systems will be overwhelmed has been debunked by the fact that close to 90 per cent of the Covid-19 cases in Kenya are asymptomatic and do not require hospitalisation.

Unless things change between Sunday and Monday, sources close to the Presidency told the Nation that the government is highly considering introducing restrictions targeting specific areas.

Experts, on the other hand, are against the lockdown, saying that it is not a solution to containing the virus. Amref Health Africa Group Chief Executive Officer Githinji Gitahi said the virus detected across the country is of the same strain, and that a lockdown would only work if there were different strains.

CARE AND TREATMENT

He said the government should focus on the caring and treatment of Covid-19 patients and not the number of infections, adding that most counties do not have the capacity to test patients and have to transport their samples to Nairobi, hence the long waiting period for results.

"What is happening in most of our facilities is not right," he said.

"We are managing Covid-19 instead of managing the patients who are isolated and left unattended as they wait for their results. Covid-19 test results should not deter healthcare workers from attending to patients."

Dr Gitahi said the government should look at the best protocols to manage patients with Covid-19.

"Covid-19 patients are collapsing and dying [while] waiting for their results. In the over 240 cases that we have recorded in the country, how many could have been saved as they waited for their results? We should take measures and improve care and treatment," he said.

NO MEDICAL CARE

He gave an example of a patient who showed up in a health facility in Murang'a with Covid-19 symptoms. A rapid response team collected samples and the hospital isolated the patient, who received no medical care pending results of the tests. The patient, who had breathing difficulties, collapsed and died. The hospital is still waiting for the results as the patient's body lies in a mortuary.

"How about if the hospital took care of the patient and did what it could to save life without waiting for the results? Are we treating Covid-19 or taking care of our patients? This is what is killing most of our patients," Dr Gitahi said.

Prof Matilu Mwau, a microbiologist and infectious diseases specialist at Kenya Medical Research Institute (Kemri), says Kenyans should just be forced to do what is right instead of imposing a lockdown on them.

GIVE KENYANS MASKS

The government, he said, should also invest in providing Kenyans with masks, which would be a better strategy than focusing so much on testing.

"If we are going to supply masks and use some force -- for instance, fining those who break the rules -- then we might reduce the infection rate. We already have the virus and closing down the country will not change anything," said Prof Mwau, adding that the right messaging should be developed to have Kenyans know that the virus is very dangerous and can infect anyone.

One of the restrictions being considered in Monday's meeting is the total closure of bars and gyms and issuing of strict controls in the sale and consumption of alcohol.

Night clubs and restaurants have for the last one month found ways of circumventing the existing regulations during Covid-19 by allowing unrestricted sale of alcohol without adherence to social-distancing rules.

A draft legal notice by the Ministry of Health notes that no one should consume any alcoholic drink in public places, and these include parks, restaurants, parking lots, eateries, bars, entertainment joints and supermarkets.

CLOSE BARS COMPLETELY

"We should also look at enforcing other measures, including closing down of bars and restaurants completely. These are going to be the end of us all," warned Prof Mwau.

Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe allowed restaurants to reopen in June so long as they closed by 7.30pm. He also said clients must observe social-distancing measures, but this has scarcely been enforced in many instances.

The Pubs, Entertainment and Restaurant Association of Kenya (Perak) has argued that reintroducing tight regulations in the sector will result in about 500,000 job losses and loss of Sh50 billion in revenue.

South Africa, which has one of the world's toughest lockdowns, including a total ban on the sale of alcohol and cigarettes, since March now ranks fifth globally among the worst-hit countries by coronavirus, with over 364,000 cases.

Cities like Beijing in China, Leicester in England and Melbourne in Australia were forced to reintroduce lockdowns after witnessing surges in coronavirus infections after easing restrictions.

Kenya's infections have surged by 79 per cent, while deaths caused by coronavirus have increased by 56 per cent since the lifting of the cessation of movement order three weeks ago.

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