The world seems to be coming down around us. Stock markets have tanked. In the US, the Standard & Poor’s 500 was down five per cent. The oil market has tanked, and prices have fallen as much as 60 per cent since January.
Aeroplanes, which are built to live in the air, are on the tarmac. This week, Delta cancelled 70 per cent of its flights and sent 10,000 of its staff on leave. The British pound is exchanging at its lowest against the US dollar since 1985. The Kenya shilling is at nine-year lows.
In Nairobi, hotels are barely open. Last weekend, a source told me that occupancy is down to 17 per cent; it must be lower now. Countries are blocking foreigners outright: Canada, New Zealand and Australia already have.
The economic damage from the novel coronavirus, Covid-19, from its humble beginnings in Wuhan, China, in December is astronomical. The changes it is going to forge in the political, social and political structures of the world are yet to be understood.
I’ve read in one American newspaper that the US jobless rates could reach 20 per cent, well above the 10 per cent during the 2008 financial crisis, and predictions that next quarter the US economy will contract worse than it did during the Great Depression.
Countries have responded by wheeling out money by the cart. The Trump administration has a $1 trillion bailout package, which will see taxpayers get a cheque in the mail and banks, mutual funds and other businesses supported.
The European Central Bank plans a $850 billion cash injection into the money markets and the UK wants to spend hundreds of billions of pounds to stave off economic collapse and protect families from financial pain.
Our own response has not been quite decisive so far. Mistakes are expected when dealing with such an unprecedented challenge. First, the limits to flights from China were slow. As a matter of fact, it appeared as if the government was very keen to keep the flow of Chinese going even when the virus was roaring through cities and there was little preparedness here. Stricter measures have now been taken.
The uptake of testing has also been slow; we are still testing suspected cases and contacts and not random mass testing, or even testing on demand. It may well be that Kenya is struggling with the cost of test kits but, to get ahead of the viral curve, mass testing is necessary.
With dangerously unhygienic conditions in public transport and the slums, a highly contagious virus can run through a population with devastating effects. When you add a healthcare system that’s seriously underfunded and undeveloped and fantastic levels of corruption, which would blunt the effectiveness of response, then you have a truly dangerous situation.
I don’t know what the government can do to support the economy. However, I do know that the measures announced by the banks two days ago were little more than a PR stunt. Asking clients to go plead their case is what you would expect in any default circumstances, anyway.
If the financial sector is not foreseeing pain for itself out of this epidemic, then its tea leaves are not falling right. In other places, the financial regulators have strongly laid down the terms of relief to customers. If customers go out of business, everybody goes out of business.
What would be reassuring is a situation where the government levels up with the public, explains the exact position and outlines its plan and the sacrifices it expects of the population.
There should be no illusion of some kind of accountability when the dust has finally settled.
First, the total number of confirmed cases — reconciled with the ones in the private healthcare system — need to be concluded and shared with the public so that people can be aware of the level of risk.
Secondly, the government should make public its testing capabilities. How many test kits do we have and how many do we reasonably need? What are we doing to make up for the shortfall? Are we procuring in the normal Kenyan way, where we pay 100 times what others are paying?
We must conduct mass testing so that the infected can be trained on how to heal without overloading hospitals and posing a danger to others.
You can’t plan any logical response without a clear sense of the size of the problem. It’s our health and our lives at risk; is it assumed that we can’t handle the truth?
Thirdly, there is a strong case for not delaying the necessary lockdowns. There are preparations to be made before quarantines are imposed, but there probably are incentives, disincentives and interventions that can keep people at home long enough to break the chain of infection.
Finally, the government is poor at effective communication. This is based on the arrogant assumption that anybody who can put steam on a mirror can communicate. And that the media are irresponsible, and public enemies, simply because they expose graft in a system where it is endemic.
But everything possible must be done to destigmatise Covid-19, conquer public fear and mobilise the masses against this horrible disease. Whatever the case, our world will never be the same again.