Handling of China Southern Airlines flight must cause us to ask hard questions of our government
The CoronaVirus just escalated from epidemic to an info-demic. Public anxiety is justifiably at an all-time high. Nairobi is now the sixth most vulnerable city in Africa to Covid-19 infection. The handling of the China Southern Airlines flight on Wednesday must cause us to ask hard questions of our Government.
The Corona virus has killed 3,000 people and infected 31,000 people across 40 countries since December 31.
The cost in terms of trade and medical has reached $360 billion globally. Three of Africa’s largest economies and populations, Egypt, Algeria and now Nigeria have reported cases of affected persons. Given our relative closer proximity and easier access to China, it is inevitable that our “patient zero”, the first patient positively diagnosed, will soon show up on Kenyan soil.
World Health Organization’s Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has advised all countries to prepare. The virus doesn’t respect borders or distinguish between races or ethnicities. Preventing travellers from bringing the virus is one challenge, the second is what do we do with them when they arrive? It is not if, but when it happens, that Kenyans must consider.
The direct flight, arrival and disembarkation of 239 passengers from Guangzhou, a neighbouring province to Wuhan, left many in shock and disgust. It had taken concerted public pressure from pilots and the public to suspend all Kenya Airways flights from January 31, 2020. The decision does not come without a cost. One Nairobi-Guangzhou round trip generates Sh14.9 million shillings. Notwithstanding, the prudent decision by Kenya Airways has been replicated by no less than 73 other airlines. They include Lufthansa, British Airways, American Airlines and Air India among others.
Government responses that stopping direct flights from China would be discriminatory, passengers with symptoms could “self-quarantine” for two weeks and 11 beds have been set aside has done little to reassure the public. The vulnerability of current health system does not allow us to leave anything to chance. Only a handful of African countries have the samples and laboratories to test for the CoronaVirus. Kenya is not one of them yet. Up to now, we have had to rely on the National Institute on Communicable Disease in Johannesburg. Threatening the job of a Kenya Airways staffer and whistle-blower for alerting the public of the arrival of the China Southern Airlines plane merely reveals a government chasing its tail as a 10-tonne truck careers towards it, and us.
There have been five other declarations of similar epidemics in last decade. They include Ebola (2019), Zika (2016), Polio and Ebola (2014) and Swine Flu pandemic (2009). Apart from the ravaging impact of rinderpest at the beginning of the last decade, our health system has never been tested by a major epidemic, fortunately. We must keep it so.
Citizens must internalise the recent Health Ministry advisories and call in any fever, cough and breathing difficulties to 0800721316, 0732353535, 0729471414. The Health Ministry should accelerate its capacity to run diagnostics locally and with county governments, train health workers on early detection, prevention and management. Personally, there is absolutely no comfort in the self-isolation policy announced this week. It assumes too high an integrity level of all of us. Yesterday’s Executive Order by President Uhuru Kenyatta is a welcome start. However, it is disappointingly short on how to prevent the virus from arriving on direct flights. Is it perhaps, because we are past this stage? The declaration also excludes important relationships with the Council of Governors and vital non-state actors like the Kenya Medical Association and Kenya Medical Practitioners, Pharmacists and Dentists Union.
The declaration of a national emergency is not a light declaration. It represents the seriousness of this moment and we need all actors on board.
A suspicion is growing that public health imperatives are currently being traded for commercial, trade or diplomatic considerations. We hope that the National Committee will put the health rights and lives of Kenyans first. With the first human trial scheduled for April, scientists are in a race to find a vaccine for the virus. By then, the Covid-19 outbreak could be a full global pandemic. We must make sure that we do not allow this to happen on our soil. The costs are simply too high.
- The writer is Amnesty International Executive Director. He writes in his personal capacity. Email: [email protected]