Barely a week after the much-anticipated opening, Chinese authorities have ordered a new lockdown in a district of the city of Shanghai. For a large economy like China, which is enforcing a zero-Covid policy, its experience of the pandemic is a cautionary tale for other countries on what to do and what not to do. The directive 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 been issuing warnings of the virus’ return in recent weeks. 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 has 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 midst of campaigning for the August 9 general election.
With few exceptions, regional governments have generally failed to formulate a coherent strategy to contain the slowly but surely swelling wave, aside from issuing warnings. Meanwhile, millions of stored vaccine doses are nearing their expiration dates while the public is reluctant to take them.
The region cannot afford another lockdown or a resurgence of infections.
In the slow recovery economies are catching their breath post-lockdown, not to mention the devastating impact on global commodity prices caused by Russia’s war on Ukraine. Containing the new virus wave is crucial as it can easily trigger a new set of restrictions that could slow down regional trade.
But not much has changed in terms of capacity to accommodate those and to treat those who will be affected by the new wave of infections.
Moving the public to get vaccinated and avoid risky behavior is the most cost-effective strategy. The public needs to be informed that due to mutations, new strains may not have the symptoms that people are familiar with. According to one commenter, “The virus is back, this time with more energy, tactics and stealth. We don’t cough, no fever; it’s joint pain, weakness, loss of appetite and Covid pneumonia.”
The bottom line is that no one in the world, least of all in East Africa, can afford to fall back into the crushing economic and social pains of total lockdowns from which economies are only just beginning to recover.
What needs to be done is obvious, but in some places a credibility gap resulting from the botched response to the previous waves means the public will not willingly accept new calls for vaccination. With the right incentives, vaccine reluctance can be overcome and the public will come to voluntary testing.
The opportunity cost of not taking vaccines should be made clear, but the process of getting vaccines should also be made less cumbersome. More importantly, the public should be given a reason to live. Only people who believe that tomorrow holds hope will be inclined to embrace initiatives of self-preservation.