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Patience running out for Kenyan students trapped in virus city

Saturday February 1 2020

coronavirus

A passenger wears a mask as she waits at passport control in Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa, on January 30, 2020, following an outbreak of coronavirus in China. PHOTO | MICHAEL TEWELDE | AFP 

ELIZABETH MERAB
By ELIZABETH MERAB
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ALLAN OLINGO
By ALLAN OLINGO
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Kenyan students caught up in a lockdown in Wuhan, China, are worried that the government is not proactive in protecting them, a day after the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the coronavirus outbreak that has so far killed 210 people around the world and infected more than 10,000 others a public health emergency of international concern.

The students, who reached out to the Saturday Nation on Friday hours after national carrier Kenya Airways announced cancellation of all flights to and from Guangzhou in the Chinese mainland, said they were beginning to worry whether anything was being done to protect them as the situation in Wuhan continues to escalate. 

A number of Kenyan and African students opted to stay in the country as China kicked off its traditional New Year celebrations. But now, confined to dormitories to protect themselves from contracting the deadly virus, they are running low on basic supplies.

“They are just telling us that they are monitoring the situation,” said one of the Kenyan students stuck in the epicentre of the virus. “Today we witnessed students from Germany and Bangladesh being evacuated by their governments.” 

The Saturday Nation is not revealing the identities of those who spoke to us to protect them from possible victimisation.

In Nairobi, the Ministry of Health called for calm and reassured the public that the country is free of the virus. Outgoing Health CS Sicily Kariuki said samples taken from a male student who flew into Nairobi earlier in the week had tested negative for the virus. 

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World Health Organisation country representative Rudi Eggers said the international health agency has been working with the Health ministry, and that, so far, there are no other suspected cases in the country. Dr Eggers also said that Kenyatta National Hospital’s Infectious Disease Unit is well equipped to handle any suspected cases put under quarantine.

Whereas Dr Eggers emphasised on the need to have all travellers leaving China undergo screening both at the port of exit and entry, he agreed that patients who did not display symptoms posed a greater danger.

“Asymptomatic cases are indeed a problem. The fact of the matter is that this virus is new to everyone and it’s difficult to predict the areas of focus. However, everybody is learning quite rapidly.”

Kenya Airways’ suspension of flights to and from Guangzhou came days after it said it was monitoring the situation before making a decision on whether or not to keep flying to China. In a statement, the airline said it had done so after consultations with the government, through the ministries of Health and Foreign Affairs.

“Further to our prior communication, we have temporarily suspended flights to and from Guangzhou effective January 31 until further notice. We, however, clarify that our service to Bangkok, Thailand, remains operational,” the airline said.

The move came barely hours after its workers, through the Kenya Aviation Workers Union, threatened to boycott work if KQ refused to stop flying to China.

The carrier’s chief executive Allan Kivaluka said: “This is very important to us, not just for the China route, but the entire network”. 

“It is a global issue and airlines are looking at it very seriously,” said Mr Kivaluka. “We have taken precautionary measures, right from boarding, to ensure that we do not allow on board anyone who hasn’t been cleared by the Port Health Bureau of China. So anyone from Wuhan city in China will not be allowed on our flights.” 

China’s delayed response to the discovery of the new and deadly infection worsened the epidemic, the most senior official from the city at the centre of the outbreak said yesterday.

Public anger has simmered on Chinese social media over the handling of the health emergency by local authorities in Wuhan, where the virus was first detected.

Wuhan officials have been criticised online for withholding information about the infection until the end of last year, despite knowing about the new illness weeks earlier.

“Right now I’m in a state of guilt, remorse and self-reproach,” said Ma Guoqiang, the municipal Communist Party secretary for Wuhan.

“If strict control measures had been taken earlier, the result would have been better than now,” he said during an interview with state broadcaster CCTV.

Wuhan and cities in surrounding Hubei province have been locked down since January 23, with blanket transport restrictions effectively trapping around 56 million people at home.

Ma said the restrictions should have been brought in at least 10 days earlier.

“I think if we had taken measures like this at the time, the epidemic may have been alleviated somewhat, and not got to the current situation.”

Additional reporting by AFP