The government’s decision to allow into the country 239 passengers aboard a flight from China amid the global spread of the coronavirus, drew furious reactions from Members of Parliament (MPs) on Thursday.
They demanded drastic action to protect Kenyans. The members of the National Assembly further told Foreign Affairs Cabinet Secretary Raychelle Omamo (above) that Kenyans ”will never forgive the government” if the virus that has so far killed more than 2,770 people across the world finds its way into the country.
In a country where people die of basic ailments, such as malaria, and where public healthcare systems are weak and inefficient, MPs said it was “unimaginable’’ the government had exposed its citizens to a possible calamity.
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However, a high-ranking government official acknowledged that the clearance of the China Southern Airlines flight on Wednesday morning, which had come from the Asian nation that is the epicentre of the disease that is spreading like wildfire across continents, had embarrassed the government.
“Whatever happened at the airport was a mistake. It exposed Kenyans to danger. Measures are being put in place to ensure we do not have a repeat of such an incident again,” said the senior official who sought anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
And in the Senate, legislators said beside the Cabinet Secretary for Health, CSs for Interior and for Transport should also be summoned since the coronavirus concerns go beyond the health docket and should be considered a “national emergency”.
“I am wondering, this is actually a national emergency. Can you declare an emergency? Quarantine the airport and any other place these people use to come in. This is no longer a matter for Health alone. I am going to propose that you direct that Cabinet Secretary responsible for disaster management. I am going to propose that you summon the Interior CS alongside the Health CS,” said Makueni Senator Mutula Kilonzo Jnr.
Sicily Kariuki (pictured above) is the outgoing Health CS (Mutahi Kagwe has been cleared by Parliament to take over the docket but is yet to be sworn in), while the Interior docket is headed by Fred Matiang’i. James Macharia heads the Transport docket.
Ms Kariuki has been in charge of the Health docket since news of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) broke out. The ministry is tasked with championing preventive measures.
Mr Macharia’s docket oversees all points of entry, including airports, as the Kenya Airport Authority is under his ministry.
Dr Matiang’i’s Interior docket handles national disaster management and immigration.
Ironically, 90 Kenyan students are quarantined in Wuhan
On Thursday, Ms Omamo, who had been summoned before the National Assembly’s Health committee to explain the fate of more than 90 Kenyan students who remain quarantined in Wuhan, where COVID-19 was first reported, found herself in the middle of a storm.
MPs took her to task as they demanded an explanation on why the students are still in China, yet Chinese nationals had been allowed into the country.
The legislators further said they found it ironic that countries with some of the most advanced health systems were taking precautions to protect their citizens, including suspending flights and shutting borders, while Kenya had opened itself up to a situation that would be difficult to contain. They questioned why the government was finding it hard to stop flights from China as a precaution.
“If coronavirus comes here, we will be wiped out. By allowing in the flight, the government is telling us, ‘you are on your own’. If you allow the virus to spread here and there is an outbreak, Kenyans will never forgive you,” Bashir Abdullahi (Mandera North) told Omamo.
To explain away the arrival of the Chinese flight, the government said the passengers, some suspected to be construction workers, had been cleared and given 14 days to self-quarantine in line with World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines.
“What assurance do we have that the Chinese nationals will self-quarantine? Who is following up?” Committee Chair Katoo ole Metito (Kajiado South) asked.
Seme MP James Nyikal also doubted the efficacy of a self-quarantine. “The disease can be passed within the incubation period before the person gets sick. Then we are told that the plane was allowed in; it is something that is worrying,” said Dr Nyikal, a former director of medical services.
Kisii Senator Sam Ongeri, a medic and former minister for Health, said allowing flights from China to leave and land in Kenya was unacceptable. “A majority of Kenyans live under high poverty levels. We will all be wiped out if at all the virus gets into our country,” said Prof Ongeri.
The senator said self-quarantining is not an ideal situation, and the government should immediately put up a surveillance team to monitor all the country’s entry and exit points. “Quarantine centres must be put in place as a matter of urgency.”
Omamo had explained that the decision to allow the passengers in was “in the best interests of the country” and that a decision on whether to allow further flights from China would be made by a Cabinet sub-committee handling the matter.
Contacted by The Standard, Macharia (above) also defended the decision to allow the flight to land.
“We have not prevented any person coming from any country from coming to Kenya. So you have no basis of stopping (an) aircraft which is licensed from coming to Kenya,” he said.
“Instead, it is to make sure you have very stringent screening processes. The ones for China, like this aircraft, nobody was allowed to disembark until they were screened and confirmed that they did not have any symptoms. In other countries, for example, the screening is done inside the airport.
“For this Chinese flight, it was important that everybody was screened inside the aircraft. That is why it took one hour for them to disembark. And then from there, they are self-quarantined for 14 days and then there is what we call case-stressing - you know the details of who they are and so forth - monitored by the Ministry of Health,” Macharia explained.
Why Kenya cannot stop flights
He continued: “You see, if we stop the flights from coming here, what will happen to Kenyans who are actually in China? Because there are still Kenyans who are coming back home. So you cannot actually stop flights from coming here. Even for Kenya Airways, the suspension was actually self-imposed. Because they don’t have enough passengers going to China. Even this Chinese airline ... there are very few flights coming. They were doing about four flights per week, now I think they have done one in two weeks. Because it is not commercially viable even for them.”
The CS said a multi-ministerial committee had been tasked to co-ordinate responses and would include teams from the Transport, Health, Defence, Foreign Affairs and Tourism dockets.
Matiang’i declined to comment.
MoH knew in advance about arrival of 239 passengers from China
The Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in Kenya said in a statement that the Ministry of Health had been informed in advance of the arrival of 239 passengers, and had sent officials to the airport to assist local efforts.
But Kimilili MP Didmus Barasa claimed Kenya had become a slave due to the loans owed to China.
“We owe the Chinese a lot of money and they dictate what happens. We have already lost our sovereignty to them. When you owe someone a lot of money, you lose your sovereignty, you become their slave. The US and UK, which have advanced health systems, have ordered that there will be no flight from and to China, but in Kenya, with no medical technology, Chinese are allowed to come in freely. If there is a breakout, it will sweep so many people,” he said.
The disease has so far defied the best efforts to contain its spread despite a lockdown in Wuhan.
Mavoko MP Patrick Makau and his Turkana Central MP John Lodepe warned the disease could quickly spread across the country if the matter is treated casually.
“I do not know why the Chinese have an appetite for Mavoko. They are all over. If we have lost our sovereignty to China, let us know. Right now, we are scared,” said Mr Makau.
Mr Lodepe added: “We have seen so many Chinese coming to Turkana. We are worried that they have come to hide there. These Chinese in Turkana must be checked and action is taken.”
Why aren't we evacuating East Africans from China?
Peter Mwathi (Limuru) took the CS to task over a statement that no East African nation had evacuated its citizens from China.
“It looks like we are not taking this issue seriously. Is it the decision of the East African Community that we let our citizens rot out there? Are we telling our nation that we have surrendered our sovereignty?” he asked.
Aside from the students, nine Kenyan acrobats are also trapped in China. Omamo said the government had disbursed Sh1.3 million to affected students and a further Sh8.5 million to the Kenyan embassy in Beijing for emergency services.
The students, she said, were also being provided with counselling services through WeChat (the Chinese equivalent of WhatsApp) to ease their anxiety.
“The government has not made the decision to evacuate the Kenyans from Wuhan city. We shall continue to monitor and evaluate the status of the welfare of Kenyans and the dynamics of the epidemic as it unfolds,” she said.
Her answers were, however, met with even more anger.
Sickening and underwhelming answers from Omamo
“I have painfully sat here to listen to your answers, which I find sickening and underwhelming. This country is a joke to the extent that a CS is saying we cannot evacuate our people but we can load 239 Chinese and bring them here. If an infection happened, we will have an unprecedented disaster that we would not want to imagine. We don’t want to die,” said Belgut MP Nelson Koech.
Also coming into focus was a recent statement by Kenya’s ambassador to Beijing, Sarah Serem, offering prayers to coronavirus victims.
Yatta MP Charles Kilonzo said the envoy appeared “desperate”.
“She spoke more like a bishop and not an ambassador. She spoke like a person who has given up. When we read about this, we wondered about the state of our ambassador and her staff. Even God helps those who help themselves.”
Moses Kirima (Cenral Imenti) added: “If the ambassador is praying for us, it may not work. Prayers alone cannot work without action.”
Is Kenya able to handle COVID-19?
Later on the floor of the House, National Assembly Minority Leader John Mbadi wondered how the self-quarantine would work without effective monitoring mechanisms.
“If it is taking China this long to control this virus, how long will it take the Kenyan system to manage this problem should it come here? We will all be wiped out. It is annoying that the people who are tasked with executing their responsibilities on behalf Kenyans are now exposing them,” said the Suba South MP.
Endebess MP David Pukosse said the county has no capacity to contain a coronavirus outbreak.
“We have to take this matter very seriously. Self-quarantine cannot give you a 100 per cent guarantee,” added Swarup Mishra (Kesses).
“We are grappling with malaria more than 50 years after independence? What about coronavirus?” asked Dido Raso (Saku).
Separately, National Assembly Health Committee Chair Sabina Chege questioned why the Chinese flight had been cleared.
Senate Majority Leader Kipchumba Murkomen warned that the country risks mass infections if the virus breaks out in Kenya.
The debate was sparked by a statement by Narok Senator Ledama ole Kina that the government has done nothing to bring the students stuck in China when other nations have done everything possible to evacuate their nationals.
“I would ask you to have the Health Cabinet Secretary appear before the Senate as soon as possible to (get) clarification on behalf of the Kenyans that we represent.”
Kenya Union of Clinical Officers (KUCO) Secretary General George Gibore said countries that value their people, like the US and Canada, went in for their citizens stranded in China, yet Kenya has not, and instead allowed a plane with Chinese nationals to land in Nairobi.
“At the end of the day, the people who will be in danger are poor Kenyans and health workers. Remember, even the issues of protective gear we do not have. Screening is also a big issue,” he said.
Lock out the Chinese
Former MP Billow Kerrow added: “Rigorous? How then do you explain its spread to 42 countries now? Don’t rely on quality assurance from the Chinese ... just lock out the fellows. They lie without blinking. It’s better to be safe than sorry.”
Prof Makau Mutua also warned: “Coronavirus won’t discriminate between the rich and the poor, the elite and the hoi polloi, the powerful and the oppressed. It will hit all equally hard. That’s why resuming direct China flights is folly. It puts every Kenyan a sneeze, cough and handshake away from death.”
If you were the President of Kenya, how would handle the COVID-19 (Corona virus) health crisis? Email us your thoughts on: [email protected]