Kenya’s Covid storm could be coming to an end
The Omicron variant of Covid-19 in Kenya is receding- almost as fast as it came onto the scene. The variant was a big scare; said to be ten times as infectious as previous variants, it raced through the country like a whirlwind.
Infection rates soared beyond anything that the country had seen before. It came to Kenya after streaking across Europe and USA. Kenyans braced for the worst.
The Delta variant wreaked havoc in Kenya in mid-2021, resulting in hospitals being swamped by Covid patients, and deaths a daily occurrence. These memories were still vivid in the minds of Kenyans.
But something strange happened. Hospitals and morgues went about their business as normal. There was no surge. Demand for ventilators and Intensive Care Unit (ICU) beds did not rise exponentially. And then, almost as quickly as it came, the Omicron wave started subsiding. From a record positivity rate of 34 per cent in December 2021, it was down to 2.5 per cent last week. The country is well on its way to flattening the curve.
Critically, the Omicron variant swept into the country when the economy had been fully reopened. The government, wisely it turns out, resisted the temptation to impose restrictions on the economy as a measure to contain the new wave.
A review of the performance of Kenya on Covid in 2021 gives hope for cautious optimism. In the whole of 2021, all schools, colleges and universities were opened. There was no Covid crisis. On October 20, 2021, the economy was fully re-opened. All restrictions imposed on the economy were removed.
The Omicron variant, therefore, hit Kenya when there were no restrictions in place. Indeed, many Kenyans seem to have just gone back to their daily routines as before.
Further, vaccinations remain muted. Government records show that only about 20 per cent of Kenyans have been fully vaccinated. The deadly Delta variant seems to have provided a huge impetus for people to get vaccinated. This impetus seems to have died down after the delta wave ended.
However, Omicron seems to have spread rapidly across the population. At its peak of 34 per cent positivity, it means that probably double that number was infected. This is because infected people who are asymptomatic and get mild symptoms, do not bother to seek medical attention. They run out the virus without ever realising.
One can surmise then, that most probably majority of the Kenyan population was infected by Omicron. This would mean that Kenyans have achieved herd immunity. It looks like Kenya has reached a turning point in the pandemic. The big question is whether Kenya has reached the endemic stage of the pandemic, termed as the holy grail, in which the Coronavirus becomes a more predictable seasonal infection like the flu or common cold. Despite the positive outlook, Kenya cannot yet let down its guard.
One, the virus is still around globally, with countries in Europe, USA, China and others still battling rising waves. As long as the virus exists anywhere in the world, no country can declare victory.
Two, the next variant, which could be cooking in some corner somewhere, is just a day or two away from any country. The new variants have demonstrated a huge capacity for very rapid spread globally.
The country cannot, therefore, let down its guard. Two key measures need to be taken.
First is to push vaccinations among all people aged above 50 years. Statistics show that despite the highest Covid infections being among those aged 35-45, deaths from the disease fall disproportionately among those aged 50 years and above. They are the most vulnerable.
Secondly, the country’s entry points remain the weakest link in the Covid chain. This is particularly so for airports. The original virus and all variants have entered Kenya through the airports. Stringent monitoring for any Covid symptoms, and vaccination status among anybody coming through the country’s principal airport, JKIA, must remain a pillar of the country’s Covid vigilance.