Essential Role of Government in Combating the Covid-19 Pandemic
DR. FLORENCE KAMAU
Dr. Florence is an entrepreneur running her own company and holds a Ph.D. in Business Administration and Management. She balances being a Senior Lecturer and Department Chair at the Multimedia University of Kenya while working for ACAL’s COVID-19 Think Tank.
The spread of the Coronavirus globally has not only taken a heavy toll on human lives but has also changed the role of governments worldwide in the war against it. Like many other countries around the world, Kenya has not been spared by the COVID-19 pandemic effect, which was first declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern by the World Health Organization. After the first Coronavirus case was confirmed in Kenya, the Kenyan Government shifted swiftly into response mode and took all the necessary measures to fortify its response mechanisms and contain the spread of COVID-19.
Using the combined and coordinated efforts of the Rapid Response Team, National Security Services, and Telecommunication companies, the government was able to trace all the people who had contact with the first Corona patient. Since then, the Ministry of Health gives daily progress reports on the current status of the COVID -19 pandemic in the country.
In comparison to other countries globally, the Kenyan government has done a commendable job in its role of educating its citizens on COVID-19, and in its swift response towards reducing the spread of the killer virus. Despite the considerable and notable efforts that the government has put in place to reduce the quickly spreading virus, some members of the public are still not adhering to the government’s containment measures against the pandemic. This has been witnessed in a number of counties where citizens continue with their daily businesses in total disregard of public health and social distancing measures instituted by the government.
Faced with the considerable challenges in the relentless pursuit to curb the deadly virus, it is important to interrogate the government’s performance thus far in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. Essential questions that need to address are: (a) how has the government played a role in informing the public about COVID-19, (b) How has the government engaged the community and other partners in its war against COVID-19? (c) How can the government ensure that businesses operate within the stipulated directives as a way of keeping the economy running? (d) How has the government enhanced security as a way of preventing the spread of COVID-19? To answer these questions, it is necessary to first highlight the coordinating role of the National Emergency Response Committee (NERC), which established to spearhead the campaign against the spread of COVID-19.
As the Novel Coronavirus outbreak progresses around the world, the Kenyan government sought to prevent, respond, and contain its spread. The Government established the National Emergency Response Committee (NERC) on Coronavirus under Executive Order No. 2 of 2020 which was tasked with coordinating Kenya’s preparedness and national response to COVID-19 threat.
The Role of the National Emergency Response Committee is to (a) Coordinate Kenya’s preparedness, prevention, and response to COVID-19, (b) Coordinate capacity building for medical personnel and other professionals, (c) enhance surveillance at all entry points in Kenya including ports, (d) Coordinate the preparation of national, county and private isolation and treatment facilities (e) Coordinate the supply of testing kits, critical medical supplies, masks and other protective gear, (f) Conduct Economic Impact assessments and develop mitigation strategies with regard to COVID-19, (g) Coordinate both local and international technical, financial and human resource assistance efforts with development partners and key stakeholders, (h) Formulating, enforcing and reviewing of processes that regulate the entry into Kenya from individuals or groups of people known or suspected to have traveled from COVID-19.
COVID-19 crisis continues to have a devastating effect on the socioeconomic sectors of our country, and the number of infected cases continues to rise nationwide. This presents a challenge to the National Emergency Response Committee in its role of containing the pandemic. The critical concern at hand is with regard to what can be done differently or better to contain cases to levels that do not overwhelm the healthcare system and undermine economic activities in the country.
Public information refers to any information, regardless of format, or form, that an agency discloses, disseminates, or makes available to the public. Communication is the process of sending information from one person to another to produce greater understanding and it can either be verbal or non-verbally. In Kenya, the government uses various communication channels to inform its citizens about COVID-19. This includes the Ministry of Health website that carries information about the symptoms, spread, and prevention of COVID-19. Other ways are through mass media, social media (#KomeshaCorona), Call Centre set up, and public address systems.
With the progression of the Corona Virus pandemic across the world, officials in some countries have shown both good and bad risk communication such as inaccurate and misleading statements contradicting evidence presented by public health experts, locals told not to worry since the virus is not a significant risk in the country, or suggesting that the disease is only among foreigners and that Africans are immune due to favorable weather in the continent and the dark melanin on their skin. With the many misconceptions about COVID-19 on social media and in other channels, good risk communication is key. When communication with the local public by experts, officials, and leaders is done well, individuals are able to manage their expectations and fear, and they are more likely to follow future instructions from officials during a crisis. However, if poorly done it can undermine trust in the institutions leading an emergency response as individuals rely on information from those groups to understand an unfolding situation and to make effective decisions in response to it.
The Kenyan government is using multiple channels to communicate with the public about COVID-19. While a number of these communications have been effective, there have been a couple of challenges. There are those remote and semi-urban populations and the most vulnerable who do not have basic education. Additionally, the use of mass and digital media poses a challenge to those who are deaf, blind, or have other handicaps.
The government’s directives to all Kenyans to wear face masks while in public to further prevent the spread of COVID-19 create challenges for those who are deaf and hard of hearing since they have trouble communicating as they rely on reading lips and sign language and this becomes difficult when the mask is on. Despite the mass testing campaign launched by the Ministry of health, Kenyans are not turning up due to fear of pain and fear of contracting the virus. The main challenge for government is how effectively they can communicate to ensure that locals turn up for mass testing while reassuring them and dispersing off rumors. When public health is in question, crisis response requires accurate, clear, and consistent communication.
Partnerships and Community Engagement
A partnership is a relationship in which two or more people, organizations, or countries work together as partners. In an effort to ensure proper, timely and correct information to the local Public on COVID-19, the government through the Ministry of Health has partnered with County governments, Africa Medical and Research Foundation (AMREF), World Bank, World Health Organization (WHO), Kenya Private Sector Alliance (KEPSA), Kenya Health Federation, United Nations (UN), Kenya Red Cross, and other stakeholders by engaging community health volunteers countrywide to support the creation of awareness on COVID-19.
For example, through a two-month campaign to educate health workers on COVID-19 (using a Mobile learning platform (LEAP) and customized digital content), AMREF is working closely with Africa CDC and the Ministry of Health in Kenya, to improve surveillance, detect and track the spread of COVID-19 early. Health workers are trained to identify, isolate, and refer suspected cases as well as prevent possible transmission by maintaining safety standards at high-risk areas or entry points. Communities are then educated by the health care workers about the virus and the suitable prevention measures.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, UNICEF Kenya delivered water, sanitation and hygiene supplies to Kibera. Apart from training community health volunteers, UNICEF is providing them with information materials such as flyers and posters, and public address systems mounted on vehicles to broadcast and deliver behavior change messages throughout the settlements. Other stakeholders include Kenya Red Cross, Shining Hope for Communities, and Living Water International, which have also set up hand-washing stations in informal settlements, mass transport facilities such as Ferries and correctional centers. The Nyumba Kumi initiative is yet another initiative being used to sensitize the public on COVID-19. For example, the National Youth Council, Chandaria Industries, and the County Administration are working together by reaching out to the youth in informal settlements by handing tissue papers, face masks and liquid hand wash in the fight against COVID-19 spread. The Ministry has also partnered with mobile phone telecommunication companies to sensitize the public on COVID-19 through SMS messages.
Stimulating the Economy
Economy refers to a system of institutions and organizations that either plays a role or facilitate the production and distribution of goods and services in a society. The COVID-19 pandemic has badly hurt companies of all kinds in many parts of the world especially those with smaller operating margins, such as micro, small, and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs). After the country recorded its first COVID-19 case, most restaurants and hotels were closed. According to the Pubs Entertainment and Restaurant Association of Kenya (Perak), more than 20,000 joints were shut countrywide putting more than 300,000 direct jobs on the line and affecting at least 2 million dependents.
In an effort to revive the economy and contain the spread of the COVID-19 virus, the government allowed the partial reopening of restaurants and eateries under strict measures focused on maintaining social distancing. As the government aims to keep the economy going, the main issues would be how to ensure that hotel and restaurant business operators follow the government directives without endangering the lives of the public. This stems from the fact that a number of hotels and restaurants already started operations without meeting the set government conditions. Additionally, how can the government ensure that the reopening of the hotels and restaurants is not misinterpreted by the local public to mean that the country is returning to normalcy with nothing to worry about?
Surveillance and Security
Security refers to all the measures put in place to protect people, building, organizations, or countries against threats. In the government’s effort to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, travel restrictions were put in place not only for individuals coming from outside the country but also within specific counties where the virus is spreading at an alarming rate.
Enhanced screening and quarantine measures were put into effect such as screening of truck drivers entering and operating in Kenya at roadblocks, 14-day mandatory quarantine in selected hotels and government facilities, partial lockdown in counties with higher cases of infections, and a daily curfew from 7 pm to 5 am. The Nyumba Kumi initiative has been used as a security measure deployed to detect visitors from COVID-19 high-risk counties. This has been witnessed in Taita Taveta County where the devolved administration monitors the inflow of workers, visitors, and other people into the county so as to minimize the risk of transmission between counties.
Despite government efforts to contain the COVID-19 virus, it has been met with a number of challenges such as breaking of curfew rules where in many instances, people have been apprehended for drinking during curfew hours. Another case of 5 patients among the 65 people who had turned out for mass testing in Old Town Mombasa went into hiding with their families as soon as they learned that they tested positive for COVID-19. The use of alternative routes by passengers to dodge roadblocks and enter/exit counties on lockdown has been a major challenge to preventing the spread of COVID-19.
Additionally, Kenya’s porous borders especially from Somalia and Tanzania make it even hard for disease surveillance and security teams to track all new entrants (smuggled) into the region. Research shows that lock-downs and curfews have proven to be very effective in flattening the curve of the Coronavirus spread as it minimizes contact between people. The main challenge for the government is how to enhance surveillance and security to minimize the spread of COVID-19.
Human behavior plays a pivotal role in the maintenance of health, and disease prevention. Understanding how individuals rationalize their behavior can be helpful in developing effective programs and appropriate interventions and messages that compel the target population into adopting the decision to behave in a certain way. Two major approaches that could assist the government through the National Emergency Response Committee to improve on public communication and counter myths and misunderstanding prevalent in the society are:
The use of Information, Education, and Communication (IEC): used for generating awareness, IEC is the process of working with individuals, communities, and societies to come up with communication strategies designed to promote positive behavior and that are appropriate to their environment.
Behaviour Change Communication (BCC): used for enabling action and it means providing a supportive environment that will enable individuals to initiate and sustain positive behavior.
The government can also pursue other communication strategies such as:
Measures to support the business sector:
Intensifying border patrols and engage the community, to detect illegal people crossing the border and reduce the number of imported COVID-19 cases.
Setting up of COVID-19 testing facilities at all border points to ease the process at the borders and ensure timely feedback of results.
The timing between the communication to infected COVID-19 patients on their status and action to quarantine should be immediate leaving no gaps for patients to flee and infect other people elsewhere.
World-class research, delivered weekly.