Coronavirus: How Kenya response went from lax to high alert

Tuesday March 24 2020

A staff uses hand disinfectant at the Infectious Disease Unit of Kenyatta National Hospital in Nairobi on March 15, 2020 following confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus. PHOTO | YASUYOSHI CHIBA | AFP


It's hard to imagine, with most of the country now slowing to a halt, that just over a month ago, Kenya Airways had said that it would not suspend its flights to China despite a raging coronavirus outbreak in the Asian country.

The national carrier maintained that it was monitoring the situation, but later moved to suspend flights to Guangzhou, China.

From the government’s initial denial of the risk posed by the new coronavirus (Covid-19) and refusal to suspend international flights, to confirmation of the first case last week and the subsequent daily briefings and now the call for national prayers, the response to the global pandemic in Kenya has been a dramatic journey with misses and hits.


Last month, Kenya was under pressure to suspend international flights, especially those from 18 high-risk cities in mainland China.

By then, a number of major airports around the world had suspended flying to and from such destinations to protect their territories against the fast-spreading virus.


At some point, a spatial analysis by experts ranked Nairobi the sixth riskiest city to travel to in Africa for allowing flights from red zones.

The major turnaround point for State action on coronavirus started, as many usually do, with outrage.


The public uproar over a China Southern Airlines plane that was allowed to land at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) weeks after national carrier Kenya Airways suspended its flights led to a series of events.

In late February, some officials at JKIA refused to allow passengers from the airline to disembark.

Medical officials at the airport also refused to screen passengers.

It took the intervention of senior government officials to resolve the problem.

Later, Gire Ali, an employee of KQ, was suspended from work for filming the plane's landing in Kenya with 239 passengers aboard.

Defending his suspension in Parliament, where MPs had summoned him to explain why the plane was allowed to land in the country, Transport Cabinet Secretary James Macharia dismissed the KQ employee as a criminal who should be locked up for breach of security.

Mr Macharia clearly had not read the mood of the public, or did not care, as the fallout with Kenyans intensified.

Mr Ali would later be reinstated after mounting pressure from the public. At the time, few African countries had confirmed cases.

Perhaps in an acknowledgement of public outrage over his government’s perceived laxity in addressing the seriousness of the epidemic, President Uhuru Kenyatta on February 28 issued an executive order to deal with coronavirus.


He formed a 21-member task force on coronavirus and ordered the completion of its isolation centre within a week.

Two weeks later, Kenya would confirm its first coronavirus case.

The new sheriff in town, CS Mutahi Kagwe, has since then confirmed seven cases of the virus.

Notably, the majority of these cases involve people who have travelled into the country from abroad.

Since Friday last week, when the first case was announced, the Covid-19 task force has been issuing daily status reports on new cases, as well as advising Kenyans on measures taken to secure the country against its spread.

The State has urged companies to allow their employees to work from home to minimise the risk of infection.

All schools, from primary school level to university, have been ordered closed and learners sent home.

Many institutions of higher learning, including Masinde Muliro, Multimedia University, Moi University and the University of Nairobi, have sent their students and staff home.


On Sunday, Chief Justice David Maraga ordered courts across the country to operate with a lean staff of three, comprising a court administrator, a court assistant and a judge or magistrate.

The rest of judicial staff are expected to work from home.

Members of the public, except those filing urgent matters, were also banned from accessing court premises.

At Nairobi’s Milimani law court, some magistrates opted to hear cases in the open as a measure to keep infection at bay.


As the scare of the virus spreads, Nairobi has become a shadow of its usual bustling self.

Most people working in the city have either travelled to the countryside or prefer to stay indoors.

Traffic jams that characterise mornings in Nairobi have been largely absent. Flow of traffic along Thika Road, which is notorious with congestion in the morning, has been smooth since the beginning of the week.

While it takes approximately one-and-a-half hours to manoeuvre through traffic from Roysambu to the city centre on regular days, for instance, by Wednesday morning, this time had been slashed to about 20 minutes, owing to the sharply declining number of motorists on the route.

On Tuesday, a large number of motorists on Thika Road was captured on video ‘‘fleeing’’ the city as panic gripped the capital and the reality of the pandemic hit home.


Most county governments have also suspended non-essential services, and allowed their staff to work remotely.

Counties such as Vihiga, Migori, Kisumu and Kakamega have closed mortuaries and ordered collection of bodies for immediate burial.

Public gatherings, entertainment joints and night clubs have all been banned.

Church after church has suspended their services, and asked their congregants to worship from home.

Religious rituals such as the sacrament have also been withdrawn.

While public holidays and political stalemates have often ground activities to a halt, this is the first time a pandemic has caused a shutdown of this magnitude in Kenya.


Presence of coronavirus cases effectively stopped the Building Bridges Initiative (Reggae) rallies, which had raised political temperatures.

Mr Kagwe, while announcing the first case, banned all forms of public gatherings as part of the measures to contain the virus.

“All public gatherings, rallies, crusades and meetings of national nature have all been banned. This includes BBI rallies. interschool activities like drama, music festivals and sports have also been banned,” he said.


As the reality of the pandemic dawned, Kenyans have engaged in panic buying since last week, with foodstuffs and self-care products such as sanitisers flying off the shelves.

On Tuesday, President Uhuru Kenyatta declared this coming Saturday a National Prayer Day.

Kenyans are expected to pray from their homes, while a small group of religious leaders will converge at State House Nairobi to pray for the country in the wake of the escalating pandemic.

“We cannot ignore the need to turn to God. In these circumstances, as we have done in the past as a nation, we have always turned to God first to give thanks for the many blessings that He has bestowed on our nation,'' Mr Kenyatta said.

The country, and particularly Nairobi, could be staring at even tougher times ahead, should the government effect a total lockdown.

“(A) total lockdown is always on the table, depending on how we see the progress, on how we monitor the situation,’’ CS Kagwe said on Tuesday.

''At the point that we think that the danger is enhanced, then the committee will debate and take the necessary steps,” he added.