Examining Public Confidence in Considering Pandemic Countermeasures

By Dr. Kigen Morumbasi

The writer is a lecturer of International Relations at Strathmore University and Chair of IRSK

18 May 2020
(PHOTO CREDITS: The Independent GRAPHICS: Sketch Camera)

As the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic continues to be felt globally, the growing anxiety due to an uncertain future is putting pressure on many states as the level of threat varies from one country to another.

That can be attributed to deliberate or unintentional factors that may increase or reduce the level of state vulnerability. 

Questions are being raised as to whether aggressive government policy on social distancing an over-reaction, or if the measures taken by any government and the international community are adequate. 

Such queries are emerging due to the negative economic repercussions that are unexpectedly developing as a result of adopting and implementing social distancing measures. 

In an unprecedented turn of events, the international community is facing the most significant global health challenge, that is dependent on getting national policies plus citizen participation right for the sake state stability and individual survival. 

This pandemic, like any other public health concern, begins and stops at the individual and society levels. It is now glaring that the, elimination of poverty and inequality help to create resilience needed in such situations. 

Citizens, therefore, now have a growing responsibility in what is predominantly the preserve of the state in acting against a significant national security threat. 

In order to play this role effectively, there must also be an empowerment mechanism from the state. This has proved to be a challenge for developing countries who’s economic and health sectors were already strained before the onset of the pandemic.

Ease of transmission of the disease has also placed the individual at the core of the security debate in the international system for in the current COVID-19 pandemic, state action or inaction is breeding discontent as a result of unfulfilled expectations in service delivery. 

Although social distancing measures are successful in preventing domestic health crises, other supportive measures such as curfews or ultimately lockdowns are being frowned upon as a result of economic shocks faced by the majority poor. 

This however does not establish the necessary security measures against the emergence of a second wave of infections. 

Meanwhile, initiatives in achieving about ‘herd immunity’ have been applied in countries such as Sweden or closer home in Tanzania. Herd immunity is attained when most of the population becomes infected and acquires immunity. 

Alternatively, social distancing is used as means to allow gradual exposure in order to achieve herd immunity without effecting lockdowns or curfews.

This is in order to develop a system in which the healthcare system is not overwhelmed. This way, the long-term effect of herd immunity will provide some sort of insulation from future outbreaks by creating a critical mass of immune citizens. 

As is the case in every situation, there is no one size that fits all, and the impact of COVID-19 is yet to be clearly felt and understood. Increased poverty and high levels of vulnerable groups point towards a significant level of risk in terms of fatalities. 

This has drawn global attention to the possible impact of COVID-19 on developing countries. In all this, the operational environment and risk factors are diverse. 

The main lesson so far is that public trust is a crucial ingredient in the successful implementation of social distancing policies aimed at containing COVID-19. Success can be attributed to positive steps taken by government including the settlement of medical expenses.  

This is because individual responsibility has been shown to be high in countries that have confidence in their government due to the open approach in terms of communication and sensitization. 

Public confidence also makes the citizens more resilient to the aftershocks of containment policies and increase adaptability to the new normal if governments clarify the next steps or adaptation measures for individuals to plan their future in times of difficulty.

Secondly, behavioral norms are being re-established in all aspects of human interaction, having both challenges and opportunities to found more adaptable societies. 

Lastly, despite existing policies in place, high numbers of infections have adverse effects on the economy and healthcare system due to potential to completely overwhelm existing capacity and resources.

This means the success of lockdowns is ultimately dependent on the economic resilience of the state and demographics as most countries with higher casualties have higher aging populations.  

Despite the uncertainty, many are waiting for things to go back to what they were, but it seems unlikely in the short term with various interactions such as work shifting to the digital space. 

In understanding the ‘new normal,’ it is useful to map out the emergence and level of threats posed by COVID-19 domestically, regionally, and internationally.

Countries that adopt aggressive measures aimed at enforcing the implementation of social distancing, risk eroding public trust in the measures needed to curb the spread of the disease thereby leading to apathy.

This increases chances of a second outbreak because it may create a wedge between the government and the citizens, whose cooperative efforts are key in determining the level of success in policies aimed at containing COVID-19. 

The willingness of the population to follow the government directives enhances the ability of the state to enforce stringent measures to attain effectiveness. 

Nonetheless, not all governments have taken that stance. Some countries have opted for herd immunity by maintaining a business as usual stance. 

Overall, the ideal situation would be to achieve immunity in the long run without threatening state stability. Maintaining public confidence is a key factor that will dominate the conversation on how to tackle pandemics for developing countries in the COVID and Post COVID-19 era. 

This is a result of global and domestic inequalities as well as high levels of poverty, unemployment, and human insecurity in developing countries.

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