We’re not out of the woods yet

A man rides a bicycle as he creates awareness about Covid-19 in Nairobi on May 7,2020.
 

What you need to know:

  • This Covid-19 matter is part-biology, part-behaviour and part-the strong boots of the General Service Unit.
  •  I know there are places where cheeky bartenders are serving beer in flasks and tea mugs.
  • Weakening the case for maintaining restrictions is the fact that the vast majority of the infected are asymptomatic.

There were 23 Covid-19 patients in ICUs across the country (it was 34 a month ago), six of them on supplementary oxygen. Some 457 were receiving care in hospital, 1,451 are at home and many, many thousands are walking around with the virus but no symptoms.

Not a single patient in the country was on a ventilator. At this point, it appears that the country’s healthcare system will not be overwhelmed, if the curve continues to flatten. And therein lies a big danger.

On Wednesday, the Centers for Disease Control director, Dr Robert Redfield, went before Congress and, holding up a green three-ply mask, uttered the following words, which have since infuriated President Donald Trump to no end: “I might even go so far as to say that this face mask is more guaranteed to protect me against Covid than when I take a Covid vaccine, because the immunogenicity may be 70 per cent. And if I don’t get an immune response, the vaccine is not going to protect me. This face mask will.”

This Covid-19 matter is part-biology, part-behaviour and part-the strong boots of the General Service Unit. If you wear a mask, if you maintain very high levels of hygiene by washing hands and sanitising, if you avoid crowding and maintain social distancing and if law enforcement is there to enforce the restrictions on movement and curfews, then, with time, the rate of infection begins to slow down. This is what we are seeing. It has taken six months for this cooling of the virus to be achieved.

Bribe the waiter

The levels of mask- and hygiene compliance in the disease epicentre, Nairobi, are very high. It is almost unthinkable for any person to imagine leaving home without a mask. And in most places, washing your hands is not optional.

I know there are places where cheeky bartenders are serving beer in flasks and tea mugs. But in most good restaurants, they will not serve you a glass of wine with your dinner – no matter how much beg and irrespective of your best efforts to bribe the waiter.

Upcountry counties such as Uasin Gishu, Turkana, Mombasa and Busia are overtaking Nairobi in the number of daily, reported cases. The big danger is that while in Nairobi there is awareness and enforcement, in many places outside the big cities there is no washing of hands, no sanitising and no masks – unless they are meeting someone from Nairobi.

It is an article of faith, as far as upcountry folk are concerned, that Covid-19 is a disease of the cities and has very little to do with them. Therefore, many of them have not adopted the behaviours which are keeping city dwellers safe.

Mortality rate up

Should Covid-19 strongly take hold in the poorer, older rural communities with poor access to medical information and services, we could have a serious problem.

I also need to remind you that the rate of infection might be going down but the case mortality rate is not. On August 16, the mortality rate was 1.6 per cent; yesterday, it was 1.8 per cent.

Of course a daily comparison is highly misleading but it does show you that people are still dying. And one of the most recent victims was a man in his early 30s who did not have an underlying illness.

People are tired of this vicious virus; they want it to go away. They want to go back to their normal lives. They want the winter to go away and the sun to come back so that they can take off their layers of clothes and go for a run. But not yet.

If Covid-19 has taught us anything, it is this: If you relax even for a micro-second, you will start another wave, deadlier than the first and which will kill people for longer and require more draconian lockdowns to contain. Now is not the time to remove all restrictions and open the bars for people to knock themselves out. We tried that; we didn’t like the results.

On the other hand, we are suffering. The economy is in tatters, we have lost our jobs, we are on a fraction of our pay, many of us can’t pay their normal costs such as rent and food. It is a disaster. But we know if we do the wrong things, the virus will make a comeback and the control measures will hurt us even more.

Weakening the case for maintaining restrictions is the fact that the vast majority of the infected are asymptomatic. Our situation is as good as having a vaccine: The vast majority appear to be protected by their natural hardiness. But we have to think of that 10 per cent that can’t take it; they, too, deserve our protection.

My take is that we should not let our guard down. Restaurants can, perhaps, open longer, but bars and schools should wait a little longer. And the politicians going out to show off by having villagers mob them should be prosecuted.

Like Mr Trump, they are encouraging others to expose themselves to dangers that they, themselves, would never come near to.

Yes, there some modest good news, but don’t reach out for the beer yet.

mmutuma@ke.nationmedia.com.