The Times Report

In a special meeting held last week at Seif Palace and chaired by His Highness the Prime Minister Sheikh Sabah Khaled Al-Hamad Al-Sabah, the cabinet discussed the increasing number of daily infections and evaluated ongoing measures being taken by the health authorities to combat the COVID-19 crisis in the country.

Following the cabinet meeting, Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Interior and Minister of State for Cabinet Affairs Anas Al-Saleh said that during the meeting the Health Minister Sheikh Dr. Basel Al-Sabah had briefed the cabinet on the current pandemic situation in the country and reiterated the need to maintain the ‘utmost caution’ to curb the spread of the disease.

The Undersecretary of the Ministry of Health, Dr. Mustafa Redha, the Assistant Undersecretary for Technical Affairs, Dr. Abdulrahman Al-Mutairi, and the Assistant Undersecretary for Public Health Affairs Dr. Buthaina Al-Mudhaf also briefed the cabinet on the measures being taken to confront the COVID-19 pandemic and provided a detailed explanation of the situation. They also clarified that the treatment protocols being followed in Kuwait were in line with global recommendations on the infection and post-infection care of patients.

Earlier, the health minister is said to have presented to the cabinet the consensus among health committee officials of the need to implement several measures aimed at tackling the surge in coronavirus infections in the country. Among the steps recommended to contain spread of the virus and mitigate its impact are reintroducing a partial curfew in the country from 9pm to 4am for two weeks and suspending all commercial flights to and from Kuwait, as well as clamping an immediate lock-down on areas with the potential for coronavirus outbreaks.

The health committee reportedly clarified its stance on reintroducing a curfew by pointing out that when a total curfew was previously enforced in the country, it had led to a sharp drop by over 40 percent in the number of reported coronavirus cases. Other suggestions made by the health committee include closing malls and other public gathering venues, including sit-in restaurants; limiting working hours in commercial establishments for an initial period of two weeks; enacting decisions and legislation to encourage remote work; and to impose fines and penalties to ensure the public abides by all health instructions and quarantine regulations.

The recommendations submitted by the health committee for cabinet approval, especially those on reintroducing a lockdown or curfew, are unlikely to be welcomed by businesses that are still struggling to emerge from the economic repercussions of the previous lockdown. While the lockdown at the start of the pandemic did help in suppressing transmission rates and reducing load on the health system, it also took a severe toll on the country’s economy.

The restrictions imposed by Kuwait in response to the crisis decimated the country’s travel, tourism and hospitality industry, and curtailed the functioning of commercial, realty and other sectors of the economy. It also impeded the flow of supply chains and disrupted manufacturing in many industries. No wonder then businesses fear a repeat lockdown. The combined social and psychological effect of the virus also dampened consumer sentiment and derailed spending patterns leading to a sharp market downturn.

Policy-makers seem to be swayed by the argument that they need to make a stark choice between lives and livelihood, or between the health and economy. But many experts are now beginning to believe that framing this in the context of a trade-off between saving lives or saving the economy is the wrong way to effectively tackle the current crisis.

Several studies in the wake of the pandemic have shown that contrary to the idea of a trade-off between health and wealth, countries that suffered the most severe economic downturns were generally among the countries with the highest COVID-19 death rate. The corollary to this has also shown to be true — countries where the economic impact has been modest, for instance in Taiwan or South Korea, have also managed to keep the death rate low.

The pandemic is perhaps a reminder that health and economy are closely intertwined. In addition to saving lives, countries controlling the outbreak effectively are also seen to have adopted the best economic strategies. Rather than contemplate another round of lockdown or curfews, the government would be better placed to try and implement more effective outbreak control policies and strategies.

One policy that has been put forward by several leading health organizations and institutions, and has found consensus among many policy-makers is to focus on conducting accurate and rapid turnaround tests on select groups of people. According to health professionals at UC Davis Health, a premier academic medical center in the United States, the tests should be focused on five key groups:

People who are most likely to have the disease, such as those with symptoms or people identified by contact tracing.
People who would suffer greatly if they were to have the disease, including the elderly, pregnant women and those with underlying health conditions.
People who are hospitalized or have to undergo medical procedures to ensure their own safety and that of attending medical staff.
People who have repetitive contacts in close quarters and cannot always practice physical distancing, such as first responders, mass transit workers, grocery store employees, and health care workers.
And, people who live in confined groups, including those in prisons, as well as, in the Kuwait context, people living in labor camps and other group accommodation for workers.

Since the first report of COVID-19 infection, from a wet-market in the city of Hubei in the central province of Wuhan in China at the tail-end of 2019, the disease has spread around the world, infecting nearly 50 million people and claiming the lives of over 1.2 million worldwide.

In Kuwait, the first cases of COVID-19 infections were reported on 24 February when 5 people returning from Iran were diagnosed with the illness. Increase in infection numbers were initially slow and only reached a relatively modest 2,614 infections by 24 April. The numbers began soaring from mid-May and by 24 June, four months after the first reported cases, there were 41,879 reported cases. Two months later the numbers had almost doubled to 80,960 and in the third week of September the number crossed the 100,000 mark. Eight months since the first reported cases, infection numbers on 24 October reached 120,927, and two weeks later it now stands at 130,463 on Friday, 6 November.

First death from the virus was recorded on 4 April and by 16 May the mortality figure had crossed 100. May also marked the highest daily death toll with 11 people succumbing to the virus on 16 and 31 May. The fatality number, which tripled to 303 by mid-June, went past the 500 figure on 16 August and added another 190 deaths by 16 October. In the three weeks since then the number has climbed to 808 on Saturday.

Since the start of May, when the number of daily infections first crossed 350, the numbers have consistently stayed on average above 500 for the next five months, though the period also witnessed a record high of 1,073 daily cases on 19 May and a low of 345 infections on 27 September. However, since mid-October, the number of daily infections have climbed and now average over 700 daily cases. In its latest daily report on the status of coronavirus cases in the country, the Ministry of Health confirmed 825 infections on Friday.

Let us hope that the government does not choose to impose drastic actions such as blanket lockdown or curfews in the face of the current resurgence in virus infections. A definitely better option would be to follow the recommendations from latest studies and conduct rapid, highly accurate and available testing for people in the five identified risk groups mentioned above.

To prevent the repeat of rampant virus spread in the country, the authorities need to also focus on tactics that are proven to reduce spread among the public. These include measures such as physical distancing, face protection, proper hand hygiene, in addition to discouraging non-essential congregation of people, especially in confined closed spaces.

In addition, available technology could be leveraged to conduct quick and effective contact tracing to identify those who may have been exposed by those who have become newly positive. The authorities would also need to ensure complete and strict isolation or quarantine of those who may have been exposed. Please, this time around, no ‘wastas’ for quarantine exemptions.



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