EDITORIAL: Region on right track in virus war, more can be done

Saturday March 21 2020

Coronavirus Kenya

Health personnel measure the temperature of a visitor at the entrance of the Mbagathi Hospital in Nairobi, Kenya on March 18, 2020. PHOTO | LUIS TATO | AFP 

The EastAfrican
By The EastAfrican
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Following a period of hesitance, Eastern African governments finally took some definitive steps to preclude a Covid-19 epidemic in the region.

After Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda and Tanzania reported positive cases, governments scrambled to expand travel restrictions that initially focused on arrivals, mainly by air.

Even though they were yet to record a case that tested positive, Uganda, South Sudan and Burundi, joined their regional counterparts to institute limited lockdowns.

The school calendar has been interrupted as learners from primary to tertiary level were sent back home. Public gatherings such as weddings, conferences and religious worship routines were curtailed across the region while internal quarantine measures and blockage of airspace to and from select destinations were also announced.

Uganda moved from a mostly passive posture over the past few weeks to a more vigorous, if chaotic enforcement of quarantine measures.

In focusing on those measures that could prevent a rapid escalation towards the kind of tipping point witnessed elsewhere, the governments are playing their cards right.

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This approach is somewhat vindicated by the fact that so far, incredibly, the number of positive cases has not risen exponentially.

One can argue that this could be down to pure lack and Africa’s limited internal and external connections. Yet the rapid spread of Covid-19 in countries such as Italy lends some credence to the efforts of African governments that have for decades had to deal with various epidemics in limited-resource settings.

Such institutional memory appears to be paying a dividend in the present case. Yet resource limitations should not cloud thinking about what else could be done to contain the broader fallout from Covid-19.

The response so far has been dominated by execution of the state’s powers of coercion. Citizens are being told what not to do and the menacing aspects of the state have been deployed to ensure compliance.

On the extreme opposite, there has been, in some cases, a display of abdication of responsibility. For instance, Uganda has been forcing arriving passengers into quarantines in hotels at the suspected victims’ cost.

It is ludicrous to assume that every arriving passenger will have $100 on hand daily to pay for a bed over the quarantine period. Without any professional supervision, the hoteliers, whose interests are only commercial, have been left to their own devices. This has created a situation where a single infected person, could actually spread the virus to many others during the 14 days of so-called isolation.

Beyond announcing curbs, governments in the region should be thinking about deeper economic stimulus packages. So far, the measures announced show intention, but are largely shallow and vague at best.

Across the region, the financial sector has announced incentives to facilitate payments over digital platforms. The Bank of Uganda has alluded to measures to maintain liquidity in the financial system.

Much as they are welcome, these measures might not have much social relief in economic settings with significant informal sectors. The disruption wrought on livelihoods by curtailments to movement and convergence needs specific, well thought out relief measures.

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