Why State has failed to impress in managing Covid-19 pandemic

A public contest of truths and increasing violence against civilians suggests that the government is losing control and leadership of the country’s responses to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The contest of truths is evolving into an information war, characterised by increased evidence of “alternative facts” aptly illustrated by two incidents, one in Siaya and the other in Homa Bay.

In Siaya, a huge rumpus, and now a lawsuit, have followed the nighttime burial of James Onyango Oyugi, with pictures and videos showing two men hauling a body off a vehicle and throwing it into a shallow pit - as would happen to the carcass of a dog - while wailing family members watch helplessly.

While the government claimed Onyango had died of Covid-19, and needed to be buried quickly as a public health measure, his family said he had been injured in a road accident, and may have died from undetected but serious injuries he may have suffered as a result. However, his hurried burial prevented an investigation into the cause of death, especially the theory that injuries from the accident killed him, and has left behind a controversy over the utter disrespect with which his body was treated.

While the government defended the hurried burial arrangements as justified in terms of the applicable World Health Organisation standards for disposing the remains of people who die of Covid-19, Chief Government Pathologist Johansen Oduor conceded that the burial did not meet the guidelines issued by the Ministry of Health, which emphasise dignity and family involvement. WHO guidelines on the burial of Covid-19 victims are clear about the need to consult with families about specific requests with regard to a dignified burial. Onyango’s family has now sued the government.

In Homa Bay, a man who drove a vehicle transporting family members who had an empty coffin from Nairobi has been placed in medical isolation after he allegedly tested positive for the coronavirus. The family members he drove are also in a local quarantine facility as his contacts. The driver has, however, disputed the positive test results and claims these were available after about six hours from sample collection - an impossibility given that the sample would have had to be transported four hours away to Kisumu, the nearest for testing and processing the results.

Homa Bay Governor Cyprian Awiti, earlier cited by the Health CS as the source of information about the incident, has told the media that he did not speak to the minister.

The controversies surrounding these two incidents were followed by a much-criticised claim by Education CS George Magoha that the government was already delivering online learning to all schools and would not need to postpone examinations scheduled for the end of the year. Responding to Prof Magoha, Mwingi Central MP Gideon Mulyungi said the CS was out of touch with the reality on the ground since most students in rural areas were unable to access online learning materials.

The information war has erupted at a time police violence is increasingly being employed as a means of enforcing restrictions meant to curb the spread of the virus. The first night of the dusk to dawn curfew was marked by police violence.

At least six people died as a result of the violence. It was so serious that President Uhuru Kenyatta took the unusual step of offering a halfhearted public apology. The coast-based Muslims for Human Rights has documented the case of Eric Ng’ethe, a 22-year-old killed in Diani on April 1. A policeman hit Ng’ethe on the head with a bludgeon, resulting in him convulsing and dying on the spot.

Even where police violence has not resulted in death, it has led to serious injury as happened to James Ogero, a 28-year-old public health officer with whom I spoke on the telephone on April 20. James said that on March 28, while riding his motorcycle in Nambale, Busia, where he works, he met five police officers who attacked him with big sticks, resulting in a serious injury to his stomach and face. The assault on his stomach led to significant injuries on his internal organs, which needed hospitalisation under intensive care in Kisumu, where he went into a coma.

More incidents of police violence have come to light, and now include the use of quarantine procedures as a way of punishing citizens. There was a widely circulated story on social media of Eko Dydda, whose car was towed to Kilimani Police Station in Nairobi, where he was held overnight because he was still on the road during the curfew. After an argument between the police and his wife the following day, police allegedly sent him into a quarantine facility for 14 days as punishment. 

While Health CS Mutahi Kagwe has won wide acclaim for his assured leadership of the response to the Covid-19, there has been a certain defensiveness about the response. There is a growing frustration that the government is not demonstrating that it has a big-picture understanding of the Covid-19 crisis or a capability to respond to it. Because the president and his deputy William Ruto made extravagant pre-election promises in 2013, many of which were not fulfilled, the Jubilee government has accumulated public mistrust.

Mr Kagwe is a late-comer in the Jubilee government. In his early performances, Kagwe was seen as a breath of fresh air and had engendered higher levels of public trust. However, controversies and the pervasive police violence indicate the government is unable to manage the Covid-19 pandemic through persuasion, and is increasingly resorting to propaganda and violence.

- The writer is the executive director at KHRC. [email protected]

Covid 19 Time Series