Back in 1998, a petroleum tanker overturned and burst into flames at Sidindi market, about 50km from Kisumu, as residents scrambled to loot the spilt fuel.
Thirty-nine people died and scores were hospitalised with serious burns. Several years later in 2009, some 110 people were burnt to death after a fuel tanker burst into flames two hours after it overturned at Sachangwan trading centre along the Nakuru-Eldoret highway.
The locals had rushed to the scene to siphon petrol from the overturned vehicle, but it burst into flames burning many. A monument with names of the dead is on site – a gruesome reminder.
Unfortunately, we did not learn. Two years later, there was an almost similar fire tragedy in the Sinai slum of Nairobi on August 12, 2011. They too had rushed to collect fuel from a burst oil pipe belonging to the Kenya Pipeline Company. The fuel burst into flames killing 100 people.
What is so sad about these tragedies is that they did not have to happen. But a combination of poverty, greed and sheer ignorance led to these cruel deaths.
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However, not all the deaths were the result of pure naivety. In the Sidindi case, police investigation confirmed that a resident started the fire by striking a matchstick, ostensibly to punish others for allegedly preventing him from fetching the fuel. The totally careless act of this one man, resulted in the deaths of scores of innocent human beings. Thus, families were robbed of their loved ones because of one man’s frustrations.
How sad, we may say. But this is almost exactly similar to decisions being made at much higher echelons of power – by a people who cannot be described as poor, ignorant, or greedy.
Yet, allowing Chinese airlines to continue flying in and out of Nairobi, at a time when every nation is taking precautions, is akin to lighting a match at a petrol accident scene. Whatever the justification, this act has the potential of placing the lives of innocent people into fatal jeopardy. Other nations are totally cautious.
I was due to travel this coming Friday to attend a global meeting of senior business and Church leaders in Rome, Italy. Sadly, Italy is one of the nations where the Coronavirus has been detected in recent weeks, with about 400 cases reported. When the conference Steering Committee – of which I am a part – met last week to review the situation, the host committee in Rome assured us that the reported incidents were some 700 kilometres from Rome and that the government was totally on top of the situation.
After much discussion, the Committee was convinced that the risk was minimal. However, we were unanimous that this notwithstanding, the spread of the virus is too unpredictable to gamble with. It would therefore not be wise to bring people from across the globe and expose them to possible risk.
Accordingly, the decision was unanimous to cancel the event, which was only four days away. This despite the possibility of losing over $250,000 (Sh25 million) already paid to the hotel, and possible further loses in the cancellation of flight tickets only a few days to travel. Yet as a Committee, we were persuaded that this would be a lesser cost to carry than the burden of any future regrets, should anybody contract the disease.
Whereas I am not privy to the facts and data upon which the relevant government leaders have based their decisions, it appears greatly unwise to risk the lives of Kenyans by continuing to ferry people to and from the epicentre of the Coronavirus epidemic. It is akin to not only rushing to collect fuel from an overturned tanker, but also lighting a cigarette in a highly inflammable scene. It is treacherously naïve.
Meantime, what must baffle even the most ignorant of us is the argument that we cannot discriminate against the Chinese. Why then should Kenya Airways be losing millions of shillings in cancelled flights on the Chinese route while other airlines are allowed to ferry people on the same route right to our doorsteps? If the route is not as risky as we are made to believe, why should we discriminate against our own airline and yet be so magnanimous towards others? Leadership is about decision making, and when it comes to preserving lives, it is always best to err on the side of safety. The regrets are often more bearable.
- The writer is the presiding bishop of Christ is the Answer Ministries. [email protected]