Tough laws for private cars in efforts to curb Covid-19

Wednesday May 13 2020
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Traffic on Uhuru Highway in Nairobi on April 1, 2020. Owners of private cars will not be allowed to carry more than 50 per cent of the declared passenger capacity of their vehicles. PHOTO | DENNIS ONSONGO | NATION MEDIA GROUP

By NYAMBEGA GISESA
By IBRAHIM ORUKO

Private car owners are among the biggest victims of new laws gazetted on Thursday evening to curb the spread of the coronavirus, as Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe tightens the noose on Kenya’s chaotic transport sector, days after he announced radical changes in the passenger service sector.

In the new laws, which are subject to parliamentary approval, owners of private cars will not be allowed to carry more than 50 per cent of the declared passenger capacity of their vehicles.

This means owners of five-seater vehicles, which form the majority of cars on Kenyan roads, will only be allowed to carry one passenger as two would take the seat occupancy to three, including the driver, or 60 per cent of total capacity.

Owners of seven-seater vehicles will be allowed to carry a maximum of two passengers, excluding the driver, while those who drive eight-seaters will not be allowed to carry more than three passengers.

Both the driver and the passengers must wear masks at all times, the laws instruct.

And those who flout these rules will pay fines of up to Sh20,000 or face imprisonment of up to six months or both. The face mask, the laws add, must cover both the nose and mouth.

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EFFECTIVE MOVE

The new rules are an escalation of measures aimed at the transport sector that have seen the halving of travellers’ numbers in passenger service vehicles, the introduction of mandatory wearing of masks while in transit, and deployment of hand sanitisers at bus stops, among others.

The regulations on masks have already caught on despite limited supply in the initial stages.

Many studies have shown that widespread mask-wearing might be an effective complement to handwashing, social distancing and other measures to mitigate the pandemic, and the New York Times has reported that health officials in China, Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan “suggest that people wear masks in certain situations — if they’re symptomatic, for instance, or if they’re in crowded, not-very-well-ventilated places, like aeroplanes”.

Studies have also shown that mask-wearing, in conjunction with handwashing, reduces the spread of infection in households or other shared living spaces, like residence halls.

A lot of local entrepreneurs have flooded the market with varying designs of the masks, some of them made out of household materials like T-shirt fabric, elastic ribbon and a little bit of stitching, raising questions on efficacy.

LAWS GAZETTED

However, some peer-reviewed studies show that while these do-it-yourself masks are not nearly as effective as commercial masks made for healthcare workers, they are far better than nothing.

Homemade masks limit the spread of infectious droplets in the air and discourage people from touching their faces.

In the new regulations, every organisation, business entity, trader or vendor, whether in a market or enclosed premises, will be required to provide a handwashing station equipped with soap and water or an alcohol-based sanitiser approved for use by the Kenya Bureau of Standards.

Further, all business owners are also required to put in place measures to ensure that a physical distance of no less than one metre is maintained between people accessing their premises and regularly sanitise those premises.

As set out in the 2013 Statutory Instruments Act, these new laws take effect immediately after they are gazetted, which means they are effective since April 6, the date of gazettement.

However, Mr Kagwe will still be required to transmit the regulations to the National Assembly for approval or annulment within seven days of gazettement.

But with parliament not in session, there are concerns that the new laws will come into full force without the requisite legislative approvals.

PUBLIC HEALTH ACT

National Assembly Majority Leader Aden Duale told the Saturday Nation that Mr Kagwe had already submitted the regulations to the House, and noted that he will table them on Tuesday, when MPs reconvene after a month-long recess.

“We received them on Thursday,” said Mr Duale, adding that the Ministry of Interior, headed by Dr Fred Matiang’i, has also submitted regulations related to the curfew announced by President Uhuru Kenyatta two weeks ago.

Once the regulations are tabled, they will be committed to the Committee on Delegated Legislation, which is chaired by Uasin Gishu Woman Representative Gladys Shollei.

Under the Statutory Instruments Act, the committee is mandated to scrutinise the regulations and establish if public consultation was done before they were drafted, and whether the proposals are in line with the Constitution and the parent Act, in this case, the Public Health Act.

The regulations have already taken effect but they could be suspended if the committee disagrees with Mr Kagwe’s directives and recommends to the House that they should be annulled.

However, all indications on Friday were that the regulations will sail through parliament.

FOOD SUPPLIERS SPARED

Minority Whip Junet Mohamed supported the new regulations, arguing that stringent measures are necessary if the fight against coronavirus is to be won. “We will support them,” he said.

While Mr Kagwe has outlawed any form of gathering, he has spared food and farm-produce markets.

This illustrates the tough balancing act that he and Dr Matiang’i are forced to take as they enforce the regulations.

Kenya’s food supply chain relies heavily on the markets, in rural areas and urban centres, and there have been concerns that enforcing a blanket ban on these crucial centres of distribution could starve the nation.

Supermarkets and retail stores dominate the food market, but the vast majority of Kenyans still prefer to buy their vegetables, fruits and grains from open-air markets.

Among those who are also likely to be hurt by the new regulations are salons and barber shops, where more than four people routinely gather at any given time.

The regulations outlaw all public groupings, assemblies or processions, whether for beauty, sporting, religious, cultural, political, academic, or fundraising purposes.

Funerals have already been limited to 15 people while night vigils have been outlawed.