To its credit, the Executive reacted with alacrity after the public outcry and the court orders.
The contempt with which the bureaucracy holds the Kenyan public was in full view on the day that a plane load of passengers from China landed at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport and the passengers allowed into the country, the only requirement being that they “self quarantine”.
The Covid-19 (coronavirus) outbreak has been declared by the WHO to be a public health emergency of international concern, a status just below that of a full pandemic. While its fatalities are relatively low compared to other outbreaks, its highly contagious nature and the reality that not too much is known of the virus has caused understandable panic globally.
In China, where the virus originated, whole cities have been put in quarantine. In Japan, schools have been closed. Korea, the country with the highest infections after China, has quarantined parts of the population and instituted a massive testing campaign that includes drive by testing. In Iran, the Friday prayers were cancelled for the first time in 40 years. Many nations are either not accepting any passengers from those identified by the WHO as risk countries or are keeping them in mandatory quarantine for 14 days. Many countries have also stopped their airlines from flying into China and other high risk territories.
In Kenya, our airline initially appeared reluctant to cancel this lucrative route but sense eventually prevailed. What then came as a shocker was that, in this environment, Kenya reopened flights from China and accepted the first batch of 239 passengers, who were then released into the population.
Government functionaries saw no reason to explain their actions to the public until after the event. A considerate government, aware of the public anxiety that accompanies this disease, would have explained in detail the basis of its decisions. Secondly, it would have been less casual in the way it handled the matter. Videos by a whistle blower showed absolute carelessness in the way the “tests” were carried out. No actions were taken to enable the government to monitor the self-quarantining passengers once they left the airport. When she appeared before Parliament on matters Covid 19, Foreign Affairs Cabinet Secretary Raychelle Omamo was uncertain, hesitant and casual in her responses.
The public outcry after the JKIA incident was overwhelming. Even the judiciary, which nowadays appears totally unwilling to grant any orders against the government, acceded to the petitions by among others the Law Society of Kenya (LSK), ordered the quarantine of the 239 passengers, stopped further flights from China and other risk countries and gave orders that required the Executive to be more responsive to the crisis.
To its credit, the Executive reacted with alacrity after the public outcry and the court orders. A new inter-ministerial committee was formed and specific steps to manage the outbreak were announced. The military was to take charge of the passenger management to ensure that no suspect cases came in unnoticed.
Since then, there has been more proactive actions by the government, including the banning of flights from parts of Italy where the virus is evident. Of course, the 239 China Southern Airways passengers will have interacted with Kenyans liberally before they are quarantined, if ever.
All it takes is one of the passengers to be carrying the virus and passing it to one Kenyan. The rest would be impossible to manage.
Who approved the return of Chinese flights? Why it took a public outcry for government to take proactive steps is the ultimate recklessness by our bureaucracy. Why the government could not explain its risky actions to the citizenry was not just insensitive but a show of utter contempt. One hopes that the new Cabinet Secretary of Health, Mutahi Kagwe, will redeem the ministry and show some basic respect to the citizenry in the handling of this and other health-related affairs.
- The writer is an Advocate of the High Court of Kenya