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State defends forced quarantine as it draws criticism

Wednesday May 13 2020
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Presumed violators of Covid-19 rules, arrested in various parts of Meru County, arrive at the Kenya Medical Training College quarantine centre in Meru on April 22, 2020. PHOTO | DAVID MUCHUI NKARI | NATION MEDIA GROUP

By VINCENT ACHUKA
By ELIZABETH MERAB

In what is fast becoming a regular occurrence, every two or three days photographs of people living in deplorable boarding school-like facilities are circulated on the internet from Kenya’s quarantine centres.

The centres, which have become an increasingly prominent feature in the war against the Covid-19 pandemic since the government suspended international flights last month, have since a week ago earned another role — that of detention centres.

“Quarantine is an approach that is being taken the world over and we are working to improve the facilities,” said Dr Mercy Mwangangi, the Chief Administrative Secretary (CAS) in the Ministry of Health.

She said quarantine has had an impact on the coronavirus. Police have been rounding up those caught violating the curfew and social distancing rules in their hundreds and ferrying them to the quarantine centres at the latter’s cost.

The media interest has helped many Kenyans to take a sneak peek at the centres, which had for a month been run in utmost secrecy under the close watch of security officers.

And the results are appalling with the government being accused of criminalising a global health crisis.

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“I escaped because I had stayed there for 72 hours without getting tested but being asked to pay Sh2,000 per day,” said a man who last week escaped from the Kenya Medical Training College-Nairobi facility. “I did not go there for fattening. I was going to be tested for corona.”

PRISON DECONGESTION

The man said he was arrested in a bar in Kasarani and bundled into a police Land Cruiser for the 12-kilometre trip across the city.

On arrival, he claimed, officials only took their particulars, issued them with blankets and showed them where to sleep.

Such scenes are being replicated across the country on a daily basis as the government struggles to slow down the spread of the coronavirus by isolating those suspected to have been exposed to the virus.

The arbitrary arrests and detentions have been extended to people found to have violated the cessation of movement rules that so far affect five counties.

Last week, three people, including a miraa vehicle driver, were arrested in Meru for allegedly attempting to enter the county from Nairobi, Imenti Central Sub-County Police Commander John Tarus confirmed.

“They were arrested on the Githongo-Meru road as they attempted to avoid the highway,” said Mr Tarus.

Contrastingly, the government has been releasing prisoners in a bid to decongest prisons.

By weekend, 4,500 petty offenders and inmates with six months remaining to the end of their sentences had been set free.

A SHAM

But civil society groups have faulted the approach as similar to draining a dam from one end while filling it from the other.

“This mode of quarantining is putting the health of those isolated there at risk of contracting Covid-19, which the curfew was intended to prevent in the first place,” said the Kenya Social League.

The forced quarantine policy has seen the State ramp up the number of facilities set aside to hold people arrested from just about 50, located mostly in Nairobi, last month to having one in each of the 47 counties.

Ironically, the government-run centres are said to violate social distancing yet it preaches self-isolation.

At Lenana School, for instance, occupants sleep on double-decker beds in open cubicles, queue for food and share bathrooms and utensils.

That not only makes it difficult to self-isolate but also risky for those quarantined to be infected.

The Nation was told that, at one time, those managing the centre left the bedding of a person who had been transferred to Mbagathi Hospital after testing positive for coronavirus for two days.

There are also complaints of some of the facilities being overcrowded and unsanitary.

At Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT), the occupants have complained about irregular meals.

AVENUE FOR BRIBERY

Those at the neighbouring Kenyatta University were added 14 days for protesting against living conditions.

They said none of them has tested positive yet new people were being brought in before getting tested.

According to the Public Health Act, the government may confine people against their will if the individuals present a danger to themselves or others.

“In the opinion of a medical officer, any person who has recently been exposed to the infection, and may be in the incubation stage, may be removed by order of a magistrate and at the cost of the local authority of the district where such person is found to a place of isolation,” says the Act.

It further states that a person can be put in isolation and detained until, in the opinion of the medical officer of health, he is free from infection, or through the order of a magistrate.

But the government has bypassed the courts in the case of those who are presumed to have exposed themselves and detained them without charge.

Rogue police officers have taken advantage of this policy to extort bribes from suspected offenders.

While hundreds of people are arrested every night for violating the curfew rules, only a few, who refuse to play ball, end up in quarantine.

Gospel musician Ecko Dida learnt this the hard way a week ago when he challenge police officers.

PROCEDURE

According to the musician’s wife, Sylvia Ayugi, he was arrested on Ngong Road on April 18 as he was going home and accused of violating the curfew.

She said police demanded a Sh5,000 bail and Sh5,000 as car towing charges, which she paid but demanded a receipt.

In a long Facebook post, Ms Ayugi alleged the police released Mr Dida but tricked him to return to the station to record a statement about an incident that happened while he was in the cell only to rearrest him.

“The OCS ordered his officers to take Eko to ‘that place’. Later, Eko called and informed me that he had been taken to the quarantine centre at KMTC,” said Ms Ayugi, whose husband is now in the middle of his two-week quarantine at KMTC, which will cost him Sh28,000 in charges.

“It is our assumption that, if you have broken the curfew, then you are treated as someone who has come into contact,” acting Director-General of Health Patrick Amoth told the Nation.

As soon as someone arrives at any of the designated facilities, he added, they are tested for the virus and, if negative, released for further quarantine at home.

“If you test positive, you are taken to an isolation centre,” said Dr Amoth.

HUMAN RIGHT

The World Health Organisation (WHO) Interim Guidance states that quarantined persons should be provided with healthcare, financial, social and psychosocial support, and basic needs, including food, water. The needs of vulnerable populations should be prioritised, it adds.

Amid the debate as to whether forced quarantine has helped to curb the spread of the coronavirus, the policy has now come under sharp legal scrutiny.

Human rights activist Okiya Omtatah has challenged in court the government’s decision to force people into quarantine for public health protection without obtaining an order from a magistrate’s court as required by law.

The Law Society of Kenya (LSK), too, is considering challenging the policy in court.

The Coronavirus Tracker

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