Barely a week after the much anticipated opening up, Chinese authorities have ordered a new lockdown in a district in Shanghai city. For a major economy such as China to enforce a zero Covid policy, its experience with the pandemic is a cautionary signal for other countries on what to do and what not to do. The policy has contained the potential spread but has not eliminated the risk of future outbreaks.
These will be valuable lessons as East Africa faces a new wave of Covid-19 infections. Across the region, health authorities have in the past couple weeks issued alerts about the return of the virus. All the conditions for its rapid spread are in place.
For the first time in three years, there is near seamless movement across the region. Rwanda lifted travel restrictions to Uganda, all economies are fully open, Uganda has just held the first in person pilgrimage to the Namugongo martyrs’ shrines and Kenya is in the middle of electioneering campaigns for the August 9 General Election.
With a few exceptions, beyond cautionary statements, regional governments have in general not articulated any coherent strategy for containment of the slowly but surely surging wave. Meanwhile, millions of doses of vaccines in storage are on the verge of expiring amidst a reluctant uptake by the public.
The region can’t afford another lockdown or an infection resurgence.
Economies are just coming up for air in slow post-lockdown recovery, not to mention the trickle down devastating effects on world commodity prices occasioned by the Russian war on Ukraine. Containing the new virus wave is crucial because it can easily trigger a new slate of restrictions that could slow down regional commerce.
But not much has changed in terms of capacity to accommodate and treat those that will get stricken by the new wave of infections.
Mobilising the public to take the vaccine jab and to also avoid risky behaviour is the least cost strategy. The public must be told that because of mutation, new strains might not present the symptoms that people are familiar with. According to one commentator, “the virus is back, this time with more energy, tactics and camouflage. We don't cough, no fever; it is joint pain, weakness, loss of appetite and Covid pneumonia.”
The bottom line is that nobody in the world, least of all East Africa, can afford to fall back into the punishing economic and social pains of total lockdowns, from which the economies are just starting to recover.
What needs to be done is obvious but, in some places, a credibility gap emanating from the botched response to the previous waves means the public will not readily embrace new calls for vaccination. With the right set of incentives, vaccine hesitancy can be overcome and the public will turn up for voluntary testing.
The opportunity cost of not taking vaccines should be made clear but the process of accessing jabs should also be made less cumbersome. More importantly, the public should be given a reason to live. Only people who believe that tomorrow carries hope will be inclined to embrace initiatives for self-preservation.