The first, and primary, responsibility of the republican state – of which Kenya is a variant – is to safeguard citizens and protect their lives and property. A state that fails that minimum, and basic, test isn’t worth the name. This heightened burden on the state is particularly acute in times of pandemics and political disequilibria. The containment of, and protection from, pathogenic pestilences like Ebola and coronavirus are wherefore states exist. Where a state through negligence, incompetence, incapacity, or plain stupidity fails to rise to the occasion calls into question its right to govern the people. I write this with a heavy heart because I am flummoxed why Kenya hasn’t taken adequate measures to protect citizens from coronavirus (COVID-19).
Let me state the bottom line upfront. So far, the state says – and I guess we are supposed to believe it without evidence – that several suspects of the deadly coronavirus have tested negative. The state avers that we should just believe it. Right – if I am foolish. Even if the state isn’t lying, the next suspect might test positive. It boggles my noggin the state couldn’t until this week – two months after the outbreak -- test for the pathogen in Kenya. No sir – the samples had to be taken to South Africa for testing. That’s a head-scratcher. Why didn’t the state purchase the necessary equipment pronto? What could possibly be more important than stopping coronavirus, likely a modern Armageddon?
Pick your epithet, but methinks the government has been pussyfooting since the epidemic broke. Perhaps the state is taking its cue from the Chinese state. Reports indicate that when the epidemic broke out in Wuhan, Chinese authorities gagged doctors and suppressed all information about it. When the bushfire of a malady broke, it was too late to hide or contain it. People were already dropping dead like flies. Now, Dr Li Wenliang, who sounded the alarm on coronavirus, has died from it. I saw a picture of a lonely corpse on a Wuhan street surrounded by men in hazmat (hazardous materials) suits. It was a scene from an eerie end-times sci-fi movie. Does Kenya want folks dropping dead on Nairobi’s Koinange Street before it acts?
The Kenyan state shouldn’t play Russian Roulette with the lives of its inhabitants. The state foot-dragged on stopping flights by Kenya Airways to China. Incredibly, it allowed flights by Chinese carriers to and from China. It was only after a public outcry following the declaration of a global health emergency by the World Health Organisation that the government reluctantly – reluctantly – stopped KQ flights to China. This came after its pilots and airline workers threatened to down their tools. Incredulously, KQ announced it would continue flying to Bangkok, a connecting airport for Chinese flights. That’s dumb. Not flying to China while connecting passengers to possible coronavirus carriers in Bangkok does not make sense.
At a minimum, Kenya should’ve banned all – ALL – flights to, and from, anywhere in China the moment it knew that coronavirus was a likely epidemic. That’s what all responsible states and airlines have done. Major American carriers like American Airlines, Delta, and United have frozen all flights. Delta won’t resume any flights until April at the earliest. British Airways, among major European airlines, has stopped flights to China. This is the bare minimum. The US, which has one of the most developed public emergency health care systems, has gone even further. No foreign national who has been to China recently will be admitted to the US. Americans and US residents who’ve been there will be quarantined for two weeks.
These might seem like extreme measures given the enormous human traffic between America and China for business, study, and tourism. A lot of money will be lost. But so be it. You cannot risk a pandemic that has no cure and which could wipe out millions. If the US, with its enormous resources can’t risk it, how can a country like Kenya – which is so challenged in resources and medical technology – be so lackadaisical? You would think the reverse is true – that Kenya would be extremely risk averse because it couldn’t contain a flaming coronavirus inferno. Who will bail out villagers and urban folks if the virus catches fire in Kenya? Will our leaders flee to safer countries?
Let me give you a scenario. The WHO said that countries with weak health systems are the most vulnerable. We know this – our hospitals usually have no drugs. We don’t have enough doctors, or health care professionals. We lack medical equipment, let alone state of the art of equipment. Kenya hasn’t conducted a public awareness campaign on what to do in case the deadly virus hits. All it would take is one infected matatu tout sneezing on crowded passengers for the virus to ignite. That would be all she wrote. Kenya, like states that care for their citizens, must do everything to stop coronavirus. Let’s not be sitting ducks. We must be proactive and highly vigilant.
Makau Mutua is SUNY Distinguished Professor at SUNY Buffalo Law School and Chair of KHRC. @makaumutua.