Drama, confusion as Kenyans grapple with Covid-19 threat

Wednesday March 18 2020
By SATURDAY NATION TEAM

It was a day of high drama Friday as the government scrambled to put in place measures to deal with a coronavirus outbreak, should it happen within our borders, while Kenyans continued to express pessimism about the plans.

In a move aimed at curbing the spread of the infectious virus, the High Court issued orders banning travellers from China from entering the country. It further ordered that all passengers who arrived in the country on Wednesday aboard a China Southern Airlines flight be traced and quarantined at a Kenya Defence Forces facility.

The court orders came as President Uhuru Kenyatta issued an executive order designating 38 Level 5 and referral hospitals across the country as isolation and treatment facilities. These include six referral hospitals run by the national government; 11 run by counties; and six faith-based institutions. Another 14 private facilities were also roped in.

The President also ordered the completion of a national isolation and treatment centre at Nairobi’s Mbagathi Hospital in seven days.

Justice James Makau issued the orders after three cases were filed against the government to shield Kenyans from contracting the dreaded illness. In all three cases, the petitioners described as highly negligent and reckless the directive that required the 239 passengers to self-quarantine themselves.

“Upon perusal of all petitions and prayers sought, I find that unless a conservatory order is issued, Kenyans will continue to be exposed to the deadly disease,” he ruled. “Kenyans may be put into grave danger and result to several deaths. In lieu of the above, it is proper to grant these orders.”

Consequently, anyone from China or a country where the Covid-19 has been reported will not be allowed into the country.

The judge ordered the state to prepare a contingency plan on prevention, surveillance and response systems and present it in court for scrutiny.

The Law Society of Kenya, two doctors and an advocate had moved to court seeking to stop travellers coming from countries designated by the World Health Organization (WHO) as hotspots for coronavirus from entering Kenya. They named the Cabinet secretaries for Health, Transport and Interior, the Kenya Airports Authority and the Attorney-General as respondents.

LSK also asked for China Southern Airlines to be stopped from bringing passengers from China. The airline had initially suspended flights until the end of June 2020 but resumed them recently, starting with Flight CZ 6043, which landed at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport on Wednesday. LSK complained that KQ had suspended its flights to and from China but aviation authorities had exempted the Chinese airline. Justice Makau issued an order suspending flights for this specific airline to Kenya.

The second case was filed by Dr Joseph Mithika Mwenda and Dr Thiakanu Cyrprian Mwiraba, who asked the court to block Chinese nationals from entering the country by air, land or sea, on the basis that Kenya lacks the capacity to contain the virus. Dr Mwenda is the executive director of the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance, an environmental conservation lobby, while Dr Mwirabua is a specialist in infectious diseases.

In the third case, lawyer Kounah Ochieng faulted the resumption of flights.

The Chinese Embassy in Kenya said it requires all Chinese nationals entering Kenya to cooperate with the Ministry of Health and follow the 14-day quarantine instructions. It said some of their citizens had faced xenophobia in the wake of the outbreak.

“We call upon a rational and scientific approach towards the Chinese community and firmly object (to) any irresponsible and even racist remarks as seen from one of the MPs today,” said a statement from the embassy.

The epidemic has been spreading through secondary countries, with Italy having the highest infections outside Asia. Iran is another secondary country in the Middle East.

Nigeria and Brazil have recorded their first infections, affecting passengers who travelled from Italy, putting further exposure to Kenya, which enjoys a close tourism connection with the European country.

WHO said Denmark, Estonia, Lithuania and the Netherlands have all reported their first cases. All these cases have links to Italy. Some 24 cases have been exported from Italy to 14 countries, and 97 cases have been exported from Iran to 11 countries.

As Kenyans expressed fears about the threat of the virus coming to their shores, the President formed a 21-member committee chaired by Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe to identify and run emergency facilities by March 15, 2020.

“Kenya is a major international transport hub, with 70 per cent of international passengers in transit, and there is a significant threat arising from the spread of the coronavirus to Kenya from countries that have new and ongoing outbreaks of the pneumatic disease,” the President said.

Acknowledging public outrage over his government’s laxity in addressing the disease, President Kenyatta said, “There is a demonstrable and compelling public interest in further upscaling Kenya’s level of preparedness and capacity to prevent, respond to and contain this emerging global threat.”

The National Emergency Response Committee will be chaired by Mr Kagwe, and will have CSs in charge of Defence, Transport, Foreign Affairs and ICT as members.

The order throws Mr Kagwe into the deep end, coming minutes after he was sworn in at State House. The Council of Governors will be represented by its chair, Wycliffe Oparanya, while State House will have Chief of Staff Nzioka Waita, as well as Government Spokesman Col Cyrus Oguna.

Principal secretaries from Interior, Health, Treasury, Foreign Affairs, Transport and ICT, as well as directors-general of medical services, the Kenya Civil Aviation Authority and Kenya Airports Authority are also members, as are the directors of immigration and medical services at KDF.

The referral hospitals are Kenyatta University Teaching and Referral Hospital, Kenyatta National Hospital, Othaya Teaching and Referral Hospital, Moi Teaching and Referral Hospital, Mathari National Teaching and Referral Hospital and National Spinal Injury Referral Hospital.

The Level 5 hospitals are Meru Teaching And Referral Hospital, Embu Level 5 Hospital, Garissa County Referral Hospital, Kakamega County General Teaching and Referral Hospital, Kisii Teaching and Referral Hospital, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga Teaching and Referral Hospital, Machakos Level 5 Hospital, Meru Teaching And Referral Hospital, Coast General Hospital, Rift valley Provincial General Hospital Nakuru and Nyeri Provincial General Hospital.

The Level 5 faith-based institutions are Tenwek Mission Hospital, Mater Hospital, AIC Cure International Hospital, AIC Kijabe Hospital, St Francis Community Hospital and PCEA Chogoria Hospital.

The private facilities include Coptic Hospital, MP Shah Hospital, Nairobi East Hospital, Nairobi West Hospital, Medina Hospital, Aga Khan Hospital Mombasa, Nairobi Women’s Hospital, RFH Specialist Hospital and Aga Khan University Hospital, Nairobi.

The others are Karen Hospital, Nairobi Hospital, Nairobi South Hospital, Mediheal Level 5 Hospital Nakuru, Mediheal Hospital and Fertility Centre and the Reale Hospital Eldoret.

Meanwhile, the self-quarantine recommended among travellers from China and people they might have come into contact with may not work.

The Saturday Nation yesterday visited Athi River, where 11 of the Flight CZ 6043 passengers ended up. At Sidai Village Estate, a kilometre off the Mombasa highway, we found Qi Xiao Li, a 35-year-old man. Four houses in the estate of 120 units are on a red alert, according to caretaker George Wesley. Our interest was in house number 312, where Qi is living. 

Health officials visited the house on Thursday after the management called them to reassure the “highly charged” residents, who, Mr Wesley said, “were up in arms demanding that the management evict the self-quarantined individual.” 

When we rang the doorbell, Mr Qi appeared at a window in the kitchen, gave us a stern look and walked over when we beckoned him to come outside. He sauntered out without any protective mask.

Mr Qi does not speak English. “No speak English,” he said.

We asked him when he arrived in Kenya and he opened his phone calendar and pointed at February 26, before he dialled a number and tried to hand it to us. We declined to touch the gadget and instead asked him to put the call on loudspeaker. Another Chinese man on the other end of the line had been called in as a translator.

When the would-be translator learnt that we were from the media, he demanded a letter from the government and prompted Mr Qi to walk away.

As we walked out, we met a woman resident wearing a leso around her mouth as protective gear, signalling the apprehension with which the estate residents have been living.

Another resident, who only gave her name as Elizabeth, painted a picture of helplessness, where the non-Chinese residents were the ones who had self-quarantined.

“We first sensed trouble when we saw some two Chinese with nose-mouth masks on Wednesday night,” said Elizabeth.

“That evening, people retreated into their houses and have kept indoors since. In discussions in the residents’ WhatsApp group, it was decided that children stop going to the playground. Our once-bustling estate has been turned into a ghostly place. We are extremely scared. We feel abandoned,” said the grandmother.

When we visited, non-schoolgoing children were indoors, according to housekeepers who spoke to us.

Catherine, one of the nannies, said she had express instructions from her employer not to allow the child to go out. Another maid said her bosses have had to upgrade their handwashing soap to a disinfectant type.

Elizabeth said they had more questions than answers from the periodic government addresses,“especially for us who are in proximity with what could turn out to be patients”.

Among the many questions she has for the government, she says, are what happens after her neighbours have quarantined themselves for 14 days.

 “What will happen to us if they are found to be infected? Will the rest of us then be quarantined? The government has failed us in so many ways. They have not given us direction on what to do if we suspect one is actually infected … there is no hotline provided by the government,” she says. 

On Friday, Machakos Governor Alfred Mutua held a Cabinet meeting to discuss county preparedness.

Elsewhere in Nairobi’s west end, Chinese national Zhang Xiang, who resides at Yaya Apartments, said he had to live separately from his family after travelling from Beijing earlier this month.

Mr Zhang, who spoke to the Saturday Nation by phone, said he took up residence in a different apartment and food was delivered to him by friends, who would drop it at his doorstep.

He had shown no symptoms of the deadly bug. He was informed that he had to be away from other people to reduce the risk of spreading the virus.

“I was asked to check my temperature twice a day and fill a form to the embassy every evening and because I stayed at the apartments, the management would call me at least twice a day to ensure that I am indoors,” he said. “The key thing is not to go near other people, to avoid spreading the virus.”

But as these questions abounded, the National Nurses Association of Kenya said the self-quarantine measures as announced by the government do not meet the required health standards and thus are not scientific. NNAK president Alfred Obengo described it as “social quarantine.”

“A proper quarantine requires assessment and supervision by experts and putting up of proper and technical measures to curb the spread of the disease,” he said.

He also announced that they don’t have the capacity to handle a coronavirus emergency.

“This is an abnormal situation and we therefore call on the authorities to employ and equip healthcare providers to handle such a situation.”

Mr Obengo was speaking at Kenyatta National Hospital, where the government has set aside an 11-bed isolation ward.

“The citizens need more assurance on their safety and we should refrain from statements or actions that make the public feel more vulnerable,” he said.

Officials on the Kenya-Uganda border have adopted a multi-agency approach to keep the virus at bay. Busia border port health services officer Joshua Arusei told Saturday Nation: “We have increased screening to two points in Kenya — one at the main border entrance and another at Uganda’s entry gates for locals who cross to Uganda. Uganda is doing the same.”

However, Busia still has many unofficial routes used by residents to access either side of the border. 

Reporting by Maureen Kakah, Nasibo Kabale, Patrick Lang’at, Nyambega Gisesa, Allan Olingo, Magdalene Wanja, Gaitano Pessa, Pauline Kairu, Verah Okeyo and Lillian Mutavi