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Mutahi Kagwe, the unlikely hero in Kenya’s war against coronavirus

By Francis Ngige | March 30th 2020

Major General Mohamed Abdalla Badi, Director General Nairobi Metropolitan Services, CS Ministry of Health Mutahi Kagwe and Isiolo Governor Mohamed Kuti during media briefing on developments of COVID-19. [Jonah Onyango, Standard]

Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe’s leadership at Afya House is set to be tested even further as the country seeks to unravel the full extent of coronavirus infections, as testing of more than 2,000 people in mandatory quarantine kicked off yesterday.

Mr Kagwe, who has been in office for a month, has walked Kenyans through the uncertainties of the coronavirus pandemic through daily briefings that inform the country of measures to tackle the deadly virus.

He has kept the country abreast on everything from the rise in patient numbers to the hopeful news of the recovery of the first patient, and the grim reality of death of the first patient last Thursday.

But after this initial phase, the task ahead is bound to get harder, and will require much more investment.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has advised aggressive measures to find, isolate, test, treat and trace cases, which is crucial to stemming the spread of the virus.

International flights

The more than 2,000 persons, whose testing started yesterday, arrived in the country a week ago and are being held in 14 designated hotels and government institutions.

They came from high-risk regions, including Europe and the United States, which continue to record infections – and deaths – that now rival China’s, where the disease caused by the coronavirus, Covid-19, originated from in Wuhan.

“From tomorrow, we shall embark on mass testing for all those persons who arrived in the country last week and are currently under mandatory quarantine in various designated hotels and government facilities. This will be done in line with WHO guidelines on testing for the virus, and in accordance with one’s arrival date,” Kagwe announced on Saturday during his daily briefing.

The ban on international flights has clamped down on imported cases, with Kenya’s moment of reckoning now being the outcome of tests of more than 1,000 other local suspected cases under surveillance as they came into contact with the 42 confirmed patients.  

“Due to the seriousness of the coronavirus disease and its potential strain on our healthcare resources, it has been deemed necessary for the government to institute mandatory quarantine of all those who tested positive and their contacts,” said the CS.

“Once you have been identified as a contact to a patient who has tested positive, the Ministry of Health shall send its officials to your house to escort you to a quarantine facility. The purpose of this exercise is to have close monitoring of your well-being so as to safeguard your health and that of your family and the country at large.”

As of Saturday, Kenya had tested 833 persons for the coronavirus disease, but the arrival of 20,000 testing kits, donated by Chinese business mogul Jack Ma, will help increase the numbers.

It is this critical phase that could potentially expose the true extent of the infections that have so far been confirmed in Nairobi, Mombasa, Kilifi, Kwale and Kajiado counties. It will generally decide how badly the country has been hit, and further stretch the leadership at Afya House, Kenyans’ resilience and limited well-equipped medical facilities. 

How Kenya emerges from this phase will boil down to how Kagwe, his team and the general public implement six actions that WHO recommends. These actions could spare 150 nations that have so far registered fewer than 100 cases – like Kenya – the devastation that has hit developed countries like Italy, which has lost more than 900 patients in 24 hours on some days in the past week.

Deploying well-trained medical workforce, finding every suspected case at community level, ramping up testing, equipping facilities to treat and isolate patients, speedy processing of quarantine contacts and directing the entire government towards controlling Covid-19 are at the heart of the recovery plan Kagwe and his team are expected to deliver on.

Tears of Nyeri  

For the holder of a bachelor’s of commerce degree in insurance from the University of Nairobi and an MBA from the United States International University-Africa, it has been a proverbial baptism by fire in the pivotal health docket.

At the time of his nomination to the Cabinet by President Uhuru Kenyatta, the deathly coronavirus had yet to spread its tentacles across the world, but the task of steering the country through from this pandemic is now on the shoulders of the former Nyeri senator.

For a man who failed to persuade residents of Nyeri County to elect him as their governor in 2017, Kagwe is now carrying the hopes of an entire nation at this critical time in the country’s history. Such is the threat the pandemic poses that a dusk-to-dawn curfew has been imposed in the entire country. The last time such emergency measures were deployed was in 1982 during the abortive coup.

The advent of devolution paved the way for Kagwe to resuscitate his political career, and he won the vote in the 2013 senatorial elections with his populist ‘maitho ma Nyeri’ (the eyes of Nyeri) mantra.

His popularity, however, waned with time as he settled into his senatorial job, and his once famed slogan was derogatorily changed to ‘maithori ma Nyeri’ (tears of Nyeri), which residents blamed on his aloofness and his being missing in action in most county activities.

This scuttled his Nyeri gubernatorial bid in 2017, where he performed dismally in a race won by Wahome Gakuru, who served for two months before being killed in a road accident.

After he was consigned to the political dustbin by the electorate, Kagwe took a low profile and only occasionally commented on political issues. He chose to concentrate on his family business.

The turf wars in the Jubilee Party, however, saw him emerge from the shadows to take a key role in steering the politics of Central Kenya. He was the master of ceremony at the Sagana retreat late last year when President Kenyatta met Central Kenya leaders.

From then on, his star started rising and it was not a surprise when Uhuru appointed him to Cabinet and replaced former Agriculture CS Mwangi Kiunjuri, a close ally of Deputy President William Ruto.

With the ratification of his appointment by Parliament in late February, Kagwe took the reins of the Health ministry, and was soon after thrown into the deep end of the coronavirus sea.

But it is a challenge he has taken to with gusto. As a result, social media platforms have been awash with praise from a cross section of Kenyans.

“Where was Mutahi Kagwe all these days? You can’t tell me he was by-passed for somebody like Rashid Echesa (former Sports CS),” tweeted one James Mwaura, tongue in cheek.

For his work ethic, Kagwe has hogged the limelight as the new sheriff in town, justifiably taking over the space as he talks with fervour about the pandemic that has ground the world to a halt.

Perhaps, as many have opined, Kagwe’s modus operandi was inspired by his father-in-law, the late John Michuki, with whom they served together in Cabinet during President Mwai Kibaki’s administration.

Back then, Kagwe was minister for Information and Communication and it is during his tenure that the country birthed M-Pesa, revolutionising mobile money systems.

He also spearheaded construction of the transformational East African Marine System, the pioneer fibre optic project for Eastern Africa.

Kagwe was first elected Mukurweini MP in 2002, ending the firm grip of the veteran Muhika Mutahi who was synonymous with the constituency. Once in Parliament, Kagwe chaired the less prestigious Parliamentary Committee on Finance, Trade, Tourism and Planning.

But the acrimonious fallout between former President Kibaki and other stakeholders in the Narc government, including Raila Odinga, opened the doors for Kagwe in Cabinet.

The fallout was preceded by a divisive constitutional referendum in 2005 that Kibaki lost. He dissolved the Cabinet and when it was reconstituted, Kagwe found his way into the inner sanctum of power, earning a place at the table and becoming one of the most influential ministers in the Kibaki regime.

Covid 19 Time Series


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