On the second anniversary of the “handshake” – the political détente and agreement between President Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga that birthed the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) – a cautious hope and fear lurks in the hearts of Kisumu County residents, who are increasingly coming to believe that BBI is a technocratic process of political mobilisation that will lead to constitutional reforms. Mixed feelings, which suggest that Raila Odinga’s political stronghold is ill at ease with itself.
In the eyes of many residents of the counties of Homa Bay, Kisumu, Migori and Siaya, BBI is shaping an embarrassing theatrical show, starring inarticulate and clownish Orange Democratic Movement’s (ODM) governors. BBI does not resonate with Raila Odinga’s core political constituency, whose desire is for a competent, incorruptible, accountable and transparent leadership.
Last week, to gauge the mood of the typical Kisumu resident, we took a reality check around town and chanced on a roadside “Bunge la Mwananchi” discussion taking place off Kisumu’s Oginga Odinga Street. A boda boda (motor cycle) rider with a slight physical built, who was taking a break from his trade, was weighing in on the current debate on the BBI process, and the Deputy President William Ruto’s latest tribulations. But his thoughts were haunted by unspoken heartbreaks, heartaches and the memories of past broken elite pacts. “Jo moko wacho ni jogi biro luoko oke go Oneya.” Some people are saying Raila Odinga, (Oneya’s nephew), will be short-changed, he observed. “Onge. Wangni, oke go Oneya ema luoko jii.” No, Raila won’t be short-changed this time round…he’s the one short-changing the others, said the rider cheekily, as he assured a passive Friday evening audience. Ruto ne ni e State House, sani een kanye? Ruto was ensconced in the State House, he added, expressing a widely felt feeling of schadenfreude, the perverse feeling of pleasure in the suffering of others, which many in this particular Bunge felt every time Ruto’s tribulations were mentioned.
The cautiously optimistic residents of Kisumu County are grateful that the handshake silenced the guns in the slums, the battlegrounds in political contests, which widened Kenya’s political divisions after the 2017 presidential elections.
“The Luos are treating the BBI and the possible outcomes with cautious optimism given the nature of the politics of betrayal and subterfuge,” said a senior and long-term political commentator and strategist who hails from Homa Bay County and who requested anonymity. “The political betrayal of the Luo people goes back to the 1960s. For Jomo Kenyatta to turn his back on his most trusted comrade and political confidante in 1966 was a painful gesture that struck at the very heart of the Luo people.” The political strategist said the Luo people never quite recovered from that betrayal and treacherous behaviour of Kenyatta [I]. “As if that wasn’t enough, the Kiambu Mafia orchestrated the assassination of one of the Luo’s most illustrious political sons, Thomas Joseph Mboya, in July 1969.”
The death of Mboya (popularly known as TJ), a trusted cabinet minister in Jomo Kenyatta’s government, proved to all the Luo people that a pact with the Kikuyu political barons was a risky, treacherous and thankless affair that could cost one’s life, said the student of Luo politics. “With the onset of plural politics in 1992, Jaramogi, now in the sunset of his chequered political life, sought once again to team up with a Kikuyu political baron – Ken Matiba – and what happened? Persuaded that he could capture the presidency from the dictator Daniel Toroitich arap Moi, Matiba, riding on a crest of a pampered popular political wave, walked out of a pact that was to see the aging Jaramogi lead a united front against the intractable Moi.”
The cautiously optimistic residents of Kisumu County are grateful that the handshake silenced the guns in the slums, the battlegrounds in political contests, which widened Kenya’s political divisions after the 2017 presidential elections.
But truth be told, Jaramogi was not only betrayed by Kikuyu political mandarins: After Jomo Kenyatta died in August 1978, his loyal Vice President took over the State House reigns. As Daniel arap Moi sought to patch up all the existing discordant political divisions, he too brought Jaramogi on board in 1980 and made him the chairman of the Cotton Lint Board of Kenya. But no sooner had he appointed him the chairman, he shooed him out again.
“Jaramogi’s false rapprochement with Moi showed that political handshakes are perpetually a gamble and could go either way”, said the strategist. “Raila’s first political rapprochement was with Moi in 1998, after Moi had defeated the divided and fledgling opposition, whose vote put together was popular, but easy to manipulate and rig. When Moi lived up to his reputation as a classic backstabber, Raila quickly jumped ship and that’s how he saved his political career, as he sunk the KANU ship with his destroyer – the National Development Party (NDP) tractor.”
But that was only a temporarily reprieve: “When Raila made a pact with Mwai Kibaki in 2002, little did he know that he would, yet again, be betrayed by a cabal of Kikuyu elites, who having helped them capture power from Moi’s project and protégé, Uhuru Kenyatta, and firmly ensconced in State House, told him to go jump in Lake Victoria.”
With these betrayals fresh in the Luo people’s psyche, the BBI endgame and Uhuru’s roadmap is unclear to them, said the political commentator. “There are so many actors and loose ends that the people are not sure that when Uhuru gets into the lame duck phase of his presidency, whether he will still be firmly in control. Who will be steering the Jubilee ship?”
“When Raila made a pact with Mwai Kibaki in 2002, little did he know that he would, yet again, be betrayed by a cabal of Kikuyu elites, who having helped them capture power from Moi’s project and protégé, Uhuru Kenyatta, and firmly ensconced in State House, told him to go jump in Lake Victoria.”
The strategist said the experience of Kibaki losing grip of his transition is a vital lesson that could not be ignored. It is believed that Kibaki preferred Musalia Mudavadi to succeed him, but the Kikuyu power barons would hear none of that. “The question the Luo people are asking themselves is this? Will Uhuru also lose grip of his transition? Has Uhuru secretly made other covenants with other politico honchos to rival BBI? Could there be other political debts that needs to repaid? Has Uhuru made a covenant with Gideon Moi, for example? As all these questions play mind games with the Luo people, the 60-million question they are asking themselves, albeit quietly is: Is Raila waiting to be used and dumped?”
At a taxi shed in Kondele, we met a bored cab driver. (That is how bad business was on a Saturday afternoon, said one of the drivers, who told us we wouldn’t even have found anyone lounging at the shed had business been booming like in yesteryears). The cab driver was clearly unhappy with the BBI’s power-sharing agreement proposition, in which Raila Odinga becomes a titular head of state. He warily observed: “Ka obiro, ok wa tamre goyo kura. En Rais ma onge’ power? Wan ang’o ma omiyo emiyo wa leftovers? En mana nying’ kende e ma wadwaro? Ndalo Kibaki ne omiwa leftovers. If we get to the election, we’ll vote. Is it a ceremonial president? Why do we always get leftovers? Are we looking for a name only? Even [Mwai] Kibaki gave us leftovers.
At the boda boda shed in Nyalenda’s Kilo Junction, a rider we talked to decried the high cost of political violence, pointing out the losses Kimwa Hotels incurred in the post-election violence of 2007/2008. Before the post-election violence, Kimwa Hotels, owned by a GEMA restaurateur, were some of the most popular eating joints in the city. Quipped the rider: “Tangu Uhuru na Raila waungane, kuna amani. Miaka miwili, ni amani. Hata Kibra election ilikua tulivu. Ninani alirusha mawe? Kiongozi, sio mwananchi.” Since Uhuru and Raila shook hands, there has been peace. These two years, we’ve had peace, even the Kibra by-election was peaceful. Was there anyone who threw stones? The leader is not an ordinary man. “Lakini tangu tupate uhuru, ni makibila mawili tu ndio wamekua na Rais. Itakua furaha yetu tusikie Mijikenda, au Mkisii ni President. Natuko wengi.” Yet, since independence presidential politics have been dominated by two ethnic communities only. It would be our joy if a Mijikenda or a Kisii is president. We’re many ethnic tribes.
But the high cost of living, the economic downturn, and the fin-tech debt trap dampened the optimism of both the taxi drivers and the boda boda riders. “Tunaishi kwa madeni za Apps. Unakuwa blocked kila mahali,” We are living at the mercy of the social media loan apps, said one of the boda boda riders ruefully. In Kondele, the taxi men chorused: “Wan e CRB te. Edonjo kata ka en gi gowi mar sling 50, wouk en chulo sling 3000. Ka aeto e dhi Huduma Centre, National Bank of Kenya, to pay. Ka gi nyalo, gigolnwa gop Apps.” We’ve all been blacklisted by the Credit Reference Bureau for defaulting on loan repayments. It’s easy to get into the list, but very hard to get out. You get in, even if you have a Sh50 debt, but to you have to pay a fee Sh3,000 to get out, go to Huduma Centre, and National Bank.”
“Ok wa pinge, ok wasire, waduaro mana freedom.” But no one hires the cars, we are not supporting him or opposing him [Raila], what we want is freedom,” said a Kondele roundabout taxi man, who bemoaned the economic downturn, which has robbed him of business opportunities. “I thought it was Building Bridges Initiative for all, but why are others being ejected out of the BBI meetings?” he wondered aloud. “Before the handshake, there was economic boycott…boycott of Brookside (Milk) and Safaricom. But now no mandate, no consulting the people, we hear that Kenya is bigger than me…but what about the mama who lost a child to the bullet and the shops that were looted? These people are pursuing their own interests. As citizens, we celebrate peace, but the economy is bad…BBI is a waste of money. If Uhuru is incompetent, he should resign,” said the anguished taxi man.
“Wan wandiko ne polis pesa, NTSA pesa, KRA pesa”. We don’t know if this is the Canaan Raila keeps talking about – we must remit money to the police officers, the NTSA, KRA,” lamented the cab driver. Like many of his fellow drivers, the taxi man is caught in the trap of unforgiving formal and informal tax regimes, for which he toils every day. “Jokondele ok dwar dhi Canaan, kata ka osegolo Nyang’ e aora. Oduokwa kamane wantiere. Wan waol ma ka unyalo manyonwa Queen Elizabeth wabed Kingdom, to manynwa uru” We the people of Kondele don’t want to go to Canaan, even if there no more crocodiles in the river. We are tired. If you can, get us Queen Elizabeth, we become a kingdom.
The cab drivers and the boda boda riders felt that yet another Raila Odinga-generated political tidal wave could easily flood them with arrogant, callous, and unresponsive leadership. The perceived hostility of the Kisumu County government towards small-trader enterprises only compounded this widely expressed feeling. Kiosks and roadside eateries around the city’s highway, the CBD and on railway land have been destroyed by various agencies in the recent city clean up, destroying many people’s livelihoods, and their dense social networks, which increasingly have been playing even a bigger role in urban lives, especially among those that have been caught up in the fin-tech web and have been listed by CRB. Some of the street lights at Kilo Junction, like those at Nyalenda roundabout, no longer function, leaving hoodlums and muggers to have a field day.
“Professor riek kendo osomo ndi, to oonge rieko mar rito piny,” Professor is very brilliant and well read, but he lacks wisdom, noted two boda boda riders separately on different occasions. Many residents of Kisumu County are angry with Governor Anyang’ Nyongo’s leadership. “Peter pass by, [Kisumu County], Peter Ma’ndege,”, or Vasco da Gama are some of the new nicknames for him doing the rounds in various social media platforms.
It seems Governor Nyong’o of Kisumu County’s Prosperity House is not the same person as the Professor Nyong’o of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), who once championed “basic needs as basic rights”. Today, many Kisumu residents detest and resent Governor Nyong’o, he of the blue economy, the BBI, and the Afrocities conference rhetoric. In the eyes of many Kisumu residents, Governor Nyong’o seems to be more at home at international conferences than he is in Kisumu County’s town hall meetings. And more at home in the company of experts than mama mbogas. He is seen as an arrogant, unaccountable and callous leader who has abdicated his responsibilities, and under whose watch Kisumu’s healthcare system is going to seed.
Kisumu County’s ailing healthcare system
The Kisumu County health system is ailing. “We don’t have a functional temporal thermometer at the Kisumu County Hospital emergency wing of the Jaramogi Oginga Odinga Teaching and Referral Hospital,” said a Kisumu doctor, just a day before Kenya reported its first confirmed COVID-19 case. Yet, all the newspapers only reported the row between the governor’s office and the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (EACC) over the governor’s $190,000 luxury car. “The thermo-gun at Kisumu County Referral Hospital is defective – it picks the room’s, not the patient’s, temperature,” observed a clinical officer as Kenya was preparing for a COVID-19 lockdown.
Kisumu’s County’s public healthcare system can barely provide a decent basic service, let alone contain a pandemic of any kind, according to the medical workers. It is beset by several woes: lack of vital equipment, laboratory reagents, reliable supply of oxygen, and blood for transfusion, poor management, over-worked and demotivated health workers, bedbugs and mosquito-infested wards.
Morale is also low among health workers. By March 15, 2020, they had not yet received their February salary, and had previously been paid their January salary only in the third week of February, lamented Kisumu public hospital doctors.
The county government has not only delayed salary payments, it has also failed to remit statutory deductions it makes from its employees’ gross salaries, such as Pay As You Earn (P.A.Y.E), insurance premiums, National Hospital Insurance Fund (NHIF), and loan check-offs from to the relevant institutions. The medics had to go on strike for the county government to remit these deductions.
“At least Governor Jack Ranguma paid our salaries on time, gave us an audience whenever we had issues, and upgraded a few health facilities,” observed a doctor at Jaramogi Oginga Odinga Hospital. “Nyongo’ is asphyxiating the Kisumu County healthcare system. He has a history of mistreating health workers. As the Minister for Health he insulted doctors and nurses. Is it any wonder he has a condescending attitude toward doctors?” posed the doctor.
Kisumu’s County’s public healthcare system can barely provide a decent basic service, let alone contain a pandemic of any kind, according to the medical workers.
According to the health workers, the only language Governor Nyong’o understands is that of a strike action or parades (go slows). Labour strikes have become chronic. Last week, Justice Nduma Nderi of the Kisumu-based Labour and Employment Court issued yet another court order against the County Government of Kisumu, seeking to compel it to honour a Collective Bargain Agreement (CBA) on long overdue health workers’ promotion and remuneration. The result of the testy labour relations between the medics and the county government is that many interns from medical schools are now avoiding Kisumu County, lest the frequent strikes delay their graduation. According to one doctor, “Patients are today poorly clerked and managed,” due to a high work load. “From 8.00 a.m. to 2.00 p.m., we attend to up to between 180 and 200 patients, contrary to the recommended 30 to 40 patients. We are so overworked, you don’t even look forward to work,” bemoaned a clinical officer. Those recently employed on a one-year contract basis haven’t eased the work load.
“Jaramogi Oginga Odinga Teaching and Referral Hospital’s main laboratory is understaffed, it doesn’t work at night. You can’t carry out any specialised test at night,” observed a doctor. “In other words, you can’t carry out tests such as full blood, kidney, urea and liver function tests, at JOORTH at night.”
The regional blood transfusion bank has nearly run dry following the withdrawal of donors from funding its activities. Oxygen supply is intermittent at best. Given the triple disease burden of malaria, sickle cell anaemia, and HIV-AIDS, diseases which need blood and blood products, the counties of Siaya, Kisumu, Homa Bay and Migori, should have led the smooth transition from a donor dependent blood bank to a national and county government managed regional blood bank. But both the national and county government didn’t. “What’s available in the blood bank is barely sufficient for the medical, children’s, and maternity ward.”
Obama Children’s Hospital was supposed to be a hospital within a hospital, having its own laboratory, kitchen and pharmacy, but its laboratory has only one laboratory technician, and it doesn’t work at night. The pharmacy is also closed at night. Some Kisumu residents are now seeking public healthcare in the neighbouring counties of Vihiga, Kakamega, and even Siaya’s new born unit, especially when the doctors are on strike.
Kisumu residents resent their governor for championing the lopsided Cuba-Kenya agreement on healthcare, which pays Cuban doctors high salaries and perks, at the expense of the Kenyan doctors. He failed to listen to Prof Ali Mazrui’s admonition: “There is a crying need in Kenya for a collective healthcare self-reliance. The presence of Cuban doctors to do Kenya’s dirty work, for example, is a humiliating confession of medicare impotence. Why were the Cuban doctors necessary?”
Obsession with national politics
Until the various elected leaders in Raila Odinga’s strongholds assuage the fears of the cautiously hopeful supporters of BBI, BBI politics will only excite the top echelons of the political leadership. Those who see no good coming out of the BBI process, and those who fear that the BBI’s political tidal wave will flood the citizens with more unaccountable, corrupt or incompetent leaders, will remain pessimistic and unenthusiastic about the BBI’s proposed constitutional reforms. They believe that Kisumu County’s healthcare sector woes, under the leadership of Governor Anyang’ Nyong’o, is only symptomatic of what’s wrong with the BBI politics: Raila Odinga’s obsession with national politics at the expense of the ODM-governed counties’ politics.
Those who see no good coming out of the BBI process, and those who fear that the BBI’s political tidal wave will flood the citizens with more unaccountable, corrupt or incompetent leaders, will remain pessimistic and unenthusiastic about the BBI’s proposed constitutional reforms.
“Luos will be in BBI as long as Raila is there,” summed up the political strategist. “If he left tomorrow, they would all leave. Luos are interested in Baba, not in parties or BBI. If it’s the route to the presidency, so be it, they will follow him and the BBI.”
The strategist told us that the late Joshua Orwa Ojode, the former Ndhiwa MP and Assistant Minister for Internal Security, used to say this of the Luo and Raila: “Raila en tam tam raia”. Raila is the [Luo] people’s sweetener. “Seven years after Ojode died in a helicopter crash, seven minutes after he was airborne with his boss at the ministry, George Saitoti, in June 2012, his statement remains as true to today as when he made it in 2003,” said the strategist.
COVID-19: Uganda Must Take Robust Measures to Defeat the Coronavirus Pandemic
The coronavirus pandemic will end but without strong public services, Uganda will remain vulnerable to the next epidemic, pandemic or extreme climate event. The health, water and sanitation and all other sectors must be transformed into robust, life-enhancing government services.
The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has challenged the public service infrastructure as never before. We commend the government for the efforts it has made to limit the contagion. In particular, we commend health service personnel for their tireless round-the-clock monitoring, testing and treatment of those affected by the disease.
I appreciate the 300 water points rolled out by the National Water and Sewerage Corporation and Kampala Capital City Authority on Friday 27 March. NWSC must be funded to enable them to continue to offer handwashing points in urban areas.
It is heartening to observe the positive public response to the Ministry of Health guidance and directives. I join the President of Uganda in emphasising that the contagion can only be stopped if we collectively practice physical distancing, frequent handwashing and avoiding touching our faces. These are the only preventive measures possible. There is no cure available so far.
The Director of the World Health Organisation, which is at the forefront of the fight against the pandemic, has described lockdowns as “extreme social & economic restrictions”.
In Uganda, our first confirmed case of COVID-19 was detected on 21 March 2020. As of Friday 3 April, Uganda had 48 confirmed cases. It is not easy for public servants and it is not easy for the ordinary citizen, but if we continue to cooperate, the pandemic will end. Uganda is among the countries with fewer than 100 cases and we stand a good chance of overcoming this crisis if we make the right policy choices now.
We agree with the WHO that the lockdown provides a window of opportunity to curb and finally defeat the disease but also to prevent a resurgence of infections once the lockdown is lifted. We believe it is necessary to “Refocus the whole of government on suppressing and controlling Covid19”, as Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the WHO, has advised.
The World Health Organisation, which is at the forefront of the fight against the pandemic, has described lockdowns as “extreme social & economic restrictions”
We agree that “on their own, these measures will not extinguish epidemics”. We adopt the recommendation that, to be effective, the lockdown must be accompanied by measures aimed at strengthening the health service. It is our view that Uganda’s response to this pandemic can lay the foundations for a healthier and better-prepared country.
In everything we do, we must prioritise the safety of the health workers at the frontline. We therefore propose that they are provided with daily transport, risk and other duty-facilitating allowances, as well as personal protective equipment (PPE). In his address to the nation on 31 March, the President reported that health workers in upcountry facilities are avoiding suspected COVID-19 cases because they lack protective gear. This is unfortunate and must be addressed immediately at all Regional Referral Hospitals. It was shocking to hear in the Presidential Address on Friday 3 March that Uganda only has 10 per cent of the PPE required at this time.
We also support the call by some members of Parliament to pay health workers a motivational allowance, on time and during this crisis, not in arrears.
It may not be possible in the short term to expand, train and deploy our healthcare and public health workforce as recommended but the recruitment process can begin. The news that hundreds of healthcare workers are being recruited at all levels is welcome. Hopefully, the majority are clinicians and nurses.
What is possible in Uganda in the short-term is to continue efforts to “find, isolate, test, treat and trace” those who may have been exposed to the virus and who together with their families are at risk. Of the 48 cases, nearly all were incoming travellers and contacts of travellers arriving mostly from Dubai, 15 from the United Kingdom, three from the United States, one from Kenya. By 28 March, only three confirmed cases were not incoming travellers. We wish them all an easy recovery.
Uganda is among the countries with fewer than 100 cases and we stand a good chance of overcoming this crisis if we make the right policy choices now
In the two weeks prior to the airport closure, 2,661 high-risk travellers entered the country. Also, there are others that had not been identified before Dubai emerged as a high-risk country. Less than 1,000 of these people have been quarantined and tested. It would help to offer amnesty to the hundreds remaining to encourage them to come forward. The security services need only be deployed if there is further failure to cooperate after the amnesty is announced. In any event, the forces should endeavour to treat citizens with the respect they deserve. Wanton violence of the type we have seen contributes nothing to disease control and undermines faith in the government to lead us out of this crisis.
As has been noted, the more tests done, the greater the number of positive diagnoses. While we appreciate the donation of testing equipment from the WHO and Jack Ma, we note that we remain vulnerable as long as our capacity to test depends on donations. We recommend that Uganda seeks short-term measures to find funds for test kits. The public needs to be informed whether all the tests being used are WHO-approved. There is some concern about the potential for false negative results and, being a “fragile State” that is receiving multiple donations, we need assurance that all equipment is up to par.
Regional Referral Hospitals, and Naggulu and Mulago Specialised Hospitals, have been tasked with the management of COVID-19 cases. The input of the Uganda Medical Association, whose members are at the frontline of this battle, is required in signing off those entities equipped to take on the task. This will ensure healthcare workers at those designated facilities have adequate equipment, drugs and PPE. It is hoped that funds will be made available to provide testing facilities in hospitals outside Entebbe.
Wanton violence of the type we have seen contributes nothing to disease control and undermines faith in the government to lead us out of this crisis
Biosafety professionals should be involved in setting up any quarantine sites outside hospital settings to avoid healthcare-associated infections after the pandemic passes. The same should apply to General Hospitals and all Health Centre IVs if the need arises. Regional quarantine and treatment centres are needed to ensure everyone has a good chance of survival wherever in the country they may live as transporting patients across the country puts health workers at risk. Moreover, disinfection of markets, taxi parks and, where possible, other public places should take place before the lockdown is lifted.
Funding the fight
To fund the interventions we request that money currently allocated to Ministries, Departments and Agencies for non-essential activities be reallocated to increasing the number of tests carried out per day and providing transport and PPE for health workers. For example, fuel expenditure saved by grounding government vehicles and cancelling bench-marking trips, conferences, and treatment abroad for ailments that are treatable in Uganda, should also be reallocated to the health sector. Above all, we should minimise waste; expenditure on advertising in the media, printing official bulletins and so on, is not a priority. As WHO recommends, the way forward is “find, isolate, test, treat & trace”.
Most challenging, however, is the third recommendation from WHO: “Expand, train & deploy your health care & public health workforce”. Currently, we have five hospital beds per 10,000 people, 200 intensive care units and less than one (0.9) doctor per 10,000 people. To further complicate matters, other affected countries will seek to import our doctors to combat COVID-19 in their countries. The United States has already invited work visa applications from doctors. The US has 25.9 doctors per 100,000 people but 300,000 COVID-19 cases. Robust interventions on our part will serve in the current crisis and during any future health crises.
As WHO recommends, the way forward is “find, isolate, test, treat & trace”
The immediate sizeable source of funds would be the suspension of the Lubowa Specialised Hospital Project targeting health tourists. The total project cost is Sh1.4 trillion ($379 million). After the first payment of Sh327 billion ($87million), there remains a balance of Sh139 billion. These funds are needed to provide primary healthcare, intensive care and emergency care for Ugandans. (The existing budget for the 41 hospitals to be built in 39 districts is Sh1.3 trillion.) The reallocation from Lubowa Hospital should take place as soon as possible and should the lender decline, the rest of the loan should be cancelled.
Easing the Economic Impact of COVID-19
The majority of Ugandans are employed in the informal sector. In fact, 83 per cent of non-agricultural workers are in the informal sector (World Bank Databank). The majority of workers (75.2 per cent) are classified as being in “vulnerable employment” (Human Development Report 2019, UNDP). What this means is they do not have health insurance and are unlikely to have savings or any other form of social safety net. For the fishermen and small traders who pay annual licence fees, Uganda Revenue Authority could consider extending the validity of those licences to take account of trade lost during the pandemic.
Borrowers from the Youth Livelihood Programme and the Women’s Entrepreneurship Programme present a problem. The 83,000 participants in the government-funded loan schemes such as the Youth Livelihood Programme were already having difficulties making repayments and the majority defaulted. During this time we request that the government suspends the pursuing of defaulters and resumes collections when normal work resumes.
Those in debt to micro-finance companies can be assisted by freezing interest accumulation during the lockdown and extending repayment periods once work resumes. Boda boda riders who have bought their motorcycles on credit fall into this category.
Formal Small and Medium Enterprises face similar loan repayment challenges and require similar consideration. The Bank of Uganda has the responsibility to use those mechanisms as are within in its powers to maintain economic stability. It should ensure that SMEs are not forced out of business by enabling banks to extend repayment periods for loans. In this connection, borrowers forced to default should not be penalised and listed by the Credit Rating Bureau.
Both the formal and informal sectors increasingly use digital means to do business. To reduce the use of potentially infectious money, and to make transactions more affordable, we request that the government lift the OTT tax (excise duty on over-the-top services). The government is also urged to reach an agreement with Telcos to further reduce their rates for all telephony.
Mortgages and rent
Without work, the informal sector and struggling SME owners may be unable to pay rent and may face eviction. Bear in mind landlords too may rely on the rent to repay building loans and cater for their families. Therefore, for those in the informal sector we request that the government works out an arrangement with landlords to grant a month’s grace period for those forced to default on rent. The government could take on the debt for the period of the lockdown. For those in the formal sector, the government should consider guaranteeing the rent and mortgage payments and later recover them from salary or from the National Social Security Fund (NSSF) savings of the tenant. Moreover, the NSSF Act needs to be amended to give members access to their savings during emergencies in future.
Payment of electricity and water bills will become more difficult in the days ahead. The National Water and Sewerage Corporation has explained that it is unable to waive water charges because it too must meet its obligations to employees and suppliers.
What is needed are subsidies for consumers in difficulty. Two options are possible for a fixed period: a VAT waiver on water and electricity or selective subsidies through Yaka credits and water credits for those most in need. It should be possible to apply online or to regional offices and be granted these credits according to criteria agreed upon between the government and the utilities providers.
Social protection of the most vulnerable
We note the relief being distributed to the vulnerable in Kampala and Wakiso districts. It is true that many urban dwellers have been suddenly deprived of incomes and require support. However, rural people in vulnerable employment are also affected by the lockdown through loss of income. Many depend on roadside markets between towns and cities, traffic which no longer exists.
The elderly are the most vulnerable because globally fatalities have been most prevalent among this demographic and also because their caregivers will be unable to provide for them as before. Yet many of the elderly are themselves caregivers to grandchildren and employers of farm workers. The government has already compiled a list of the aged to which it pays a monthly grant. This Senior Citizens’ Grant is vital in keeping the rural economy afloat and for children being cared for during this time and therefore it must be paid in full and in a timely manner.
The incapacitated and those whose caregivers are themselves incapacitated by illness will need to be added to the list of the vulnerable as will the unemployed who will lose caregiver support. Nearly all Ugandans are at risk of financial disaster if they were to become seriously ill. The Human Development Report states that 75 per cent of Ugandans are at risk of catastrophic expenditure – expenditure which wipes them out financially – were they to require surgery. COVID-19 may not require surgery but in the worst cases (should they appear) it will require intensive care. With a reported 200 ICU beds nationally and most probably all occupied, the situation is dire.
In the absence of public transport, a special public transportation plan for patients and expectant mothers travelling to hospitals and medical centres should be put in place. The beginnings have been difficult as travel passes have not been easy to obtain. We propose hiring and branding vehicles for delivering COVID-19 patients to health facilities. The modalities can be worked out by the Joint Task Force. People Power Co-ordinators will be available to assist in locating those who require transport to health facilities.
The 21 per cent of people living in poverty forms a large part of the vulnerable section of the population. Undernourishment (caloric intake below minimum energy requirements) has been steadily rising for the last 14 years, from 29 per cent to 41 per cent. We have been advised by the Ministry of Health that people have a better chance of surviving COVID-19 infection if they are adequately nourished. To exclude them from the lockdown-affected persons requiring assistance is unfair and counter-productive as they are more likely to succumb to infection.
We cannot afford not to be prepared for other disasters. The shortage in medical masks, respirators, gowns and goggles caught Uganda unprepared yet this was forecast by the World Health Organisation on 27 February.
A resurgence of the desert locust plague in the region was forecast to begin in early May. A swarm entered Amudat district for the second time on 3 April. If it grows, there will be food shortages.
Extreme climate events such as mudslides this rainy season cannot be ruled out either. Our preparedness should reflect the seriousness of the situation and funds set aside to deal with any eventualities. A government statutory contingency fund must be put in place with immediate effect.
On an individual level, to increase food security, owners of uncultivated land are requested to either plant staple foods or allow food to be planted on their land during this rainy season. This arrangement would be limited to this season that is coinciding with the lockdown period.
Funding the safety net
To fund the social safety net, it will be necessary for the government itself to get debt relief on the national debt. Currently over 65 per cent of revenues goes towards debt payment. While we appreciate the World Bank’s call for suspension of debt repayments to development partners and offer of a loan package to finance the campaign against COVID-19, this is not a time to acquire more debt. Lenders are aware that Uganda is a fragile state and, therefore, negotiations for debt cancellation to enable us to provide a social safety net must go ahead and they must succeed. The absence of a social safety net is the direct result of ill-advised development policies.
Long-term interventions: Rehabilitation of the Health Care System
People Power has long argued that the stagnation in health and other services must be addressed as a matter of urgency, not in 2022 or in 2026 but now. This pandemic will end but without strong health and other public services, we shall remain vulnerable to the next epidemic, pandemic or extreme climate event. So we would like all interventions to go beyond the COVID-19 pandemic to cater for future needs.
The health, water and sanitation and all other sectors must be transformed into robust, life-enhancing government services.
Our expenditure on health decreases nearly every year. That trend must be reversed. We must go from spending 6 per cent of GDP on the health service to spending the 15 per cent we signed up to in the Abuja Declaration.
Not surprisingly, a review of the hospitals around the country reveals that the majority have faulty equipment. To finance a health service that meets national requirements, the health insurance scheme that has been in the pipeline for over a decade needs to be rolled out.
We must go from spending 6 per cent of GDP on the health service to spending the 15 per cent we signed up to in the Abuja Declaration.
We need to develop the capacity to manufacture items for clinical use, e.g. protective gear for health workers. We have the capacity. In 2019 young Ugandans developed life-saving and cost-saving bio-medical equipment. All are important because of the nationwide shortage of medical equipment especially in rural areas. Olivia Koburongo and Brian Turyabagye developed the Mama-Ope smart jacket for digital pneumonia diagnosis. In 2018 Phyllis Kyomuhendo invented M-Scan a portable ante-natal ultrasound device. Brian Gitta and colleagues developed a bloodless malaria test (Winner of the Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation, founded by the Royal Academy of Engineering in the UK); we often cannot afford reagents used to test blood. In 2014 Dr Chris Nsamba developed an incubator for premature babies which he donated to the government. It is in use at Mukono Health Centre IV whereby last year it had saved the lives of 243 critically ill babies. Uganda has one of the highest rates of premature deaths in the world.
In 2019 young Ugandans developed life-saving and cost-saving bio-medical equipment
However, Dr Nsamba failed to get any government funding although a government agency later claimed to have sponsored the development. The government should make a firm commitment to support local innovators by buying their products while following procurement rules to give all innovators a competitive chance.
Water and Sanitation
Only 18 per cent of the population has access to basic sanitation services with which to keep themselves and their homes healthy. Of every 100,000 deaths, 31 are related to unsafe water and poor sanitation and hygiene services. Of every 100,000 deaths, 159 are caused by household and air pollution (Human Development Report 2019, UNDP).
In the long term, there needs to be an investment in the water sector that meets the needs of the 82 per cent without access to basic sanitation services.
We are grateful for the government’s transparency in admitting that the limited water supply to homes has been caused by “poor planning and implementation of programmes over the years”. As a result, the water and environment sector now needs at least nine times the present level of funding every year for the next 12 years to meet national development targets (Budget Monitoring and Accountability Unit Briefing Paper 30/19, Ministry of Finance, June 2019).
During the lockdown many will struggle to get fuel for cooking. Under normal circumstances, less than 1 per cent of Ugandans has access to clean fuels and technologies for cooking. Apart from being unsustainable environmentally, the daily search for firewood, like the daily trip for water, takes away time children would otherwise have spent in school, acquiring skills to innovate for our survival as a people.
We have an opportunity to reflect on the type of nation we want to be. Are we willing to invest in our human development and well-being or will we forever belong to WHO’s category of “the most fragile and vulnerable countries”?
Human development costs money. We will only see a change if we manage our resources better, this goes both to government and to the population. We must eliminate non-essential expenditure; expenditure on salaries of political appointees and on electioneering – cash handouts in return for votes. We must eradicate waste; last year vehicles were bought at a cost of $5.5 million for the Commonwealth Parliamentarians Conference. It was said that they would thereafter be used for government work but they have not been surrendered to the pool for use in fighting COVID-19. The recent budget proposals for the desert locust emergency, especially by the ICT ministry, show that we have not learned this yet.
As a Nation, we need to reflect on the wisdom of splintering the country into tiny entities paying salaries for MPs, and public service but remaining financially unable to maintain decent health centres, hospitals or roads, or to deliver quality education in most local government institutions.
As individuals, each one of us must have as much integrity as we expect from our leaders. In the last four years, Uganda lost Sh28 billion in the Youth Livelihood Programme. An audit of a sampling of Youth Livelihood Project groups which received loans found that 64 per cent were non-existent (representing 71 per cent of the value of the loans). Another 25 per cent had embezzled the funds. This means that repayments were not available for re-lending to new Youth Interest Groups.
We must never again be found without sufficient medical facilities. We must never again find ourselves lacking water with which to wash our hands and prevent disease.
The physical environment in which we live and work can and must be transformed. Unsanitary working conditions in markets and other public places must be addressed beginning with the NWSC/KCCA handwashing points which we expect will become a permanent feature.
We must never again find ourselves lacking water with which to wash our hands and prevent disease.
A durable solution to the broken public transport system is needed, especially in cities and towns. This pandemic has taught us that public transport is a public good that must be supplied, regulated, maintained and sanitised by the government. Supplementary systems are well and good, but the primary responsibility for public transport lies with the government.
On behalf of the millions of People Power foot soldiers across the country, I call upon the government of Uganda and all Ugandans to reflect and consider the proposals I have laid out here.
For God and My Country.
Harsh Economic Times, Political Uncertainty…and Now Corona
Kenyans were already struggling with tough economic conditions and political tensions when COVID-19 appeared. Lockdowns and dwindling incomes have now made their lives much more difficult, even as they pray for the virus to be vanquished.
Our live were ruined among the leaves,
We decayed like pumpkin in a mud field
~ Mazisi Kunene, South African anti-Apartheid poet
They say when it rains, it pours, and calamity comes with its brother. The revelation that the dreaded coronavirus had, about two weeks ago, finally found its way into Kenya threw the country into a state of pandemonium. Until then, Kenyans viewed the virus as a devastating but “alien” disease.
It was not until the quasi-lockdown was ordered by the government that Kenyans realised that beyond the confusion and panic, a much worse situation was threatening to compound and exacerbate an economic meltdown they have been experiencing for the last 20 months or so. The “alien” ailment has not only brought with it bewilderment, but is threatening to lock them down, literally, to starvation.
The virus, of the genus corona, was first detected in Wuhan Province in China in December 2019, hence the name COVID-19 (coronavirus disease of 2019). Three months later, when Kenyans first heard about a disease that was killing the Chinese quicker than flickering fireflies, they brushed it off as one of those phenomena that occur in far-off countries in the East.
The disease could not have come at a worse time for Kenyans. Experiencing harsh economic times and political uncertainty, many Kenyans concluded that the gods have conspired to punish them. “For how else do you explain the disease coming to Kenya at a time when we are faced with the toughest of economic hard times?” posed a woman.
That plane from China
“This is the modern Armageddon, the end of times is nigh because we’ve deviated from God’s ways. It is a message from God who is angry with us. We’ve sinned too much and this is a sign from God who is asking us to turn from our wicked ways and repent of our sins,” prophesied a street vendor in Nairobi selling tree tomatoes, popularly known in Kiswahili as matunda damu. But after this revelation of a messianic message, the woman admitted that the hint of a complete lockdown by the government was a sure way of strangling the livelihoods of people like her.
“Ndiraikara mucii nacio ciana irie ke?” You’re asking me to stay at home, what will my children eat? “Ako corona niguturaga, reke tukuire guku bara-ini”. If the coronavirus is going to kill us, let us then die on these streets, hustling. President Uhuru Kenyatta’s government has already killed our businesses, now he is asking us to stay at home – tumurie kana twikie atia? We feed on him? Or how does he propose we should fend for our families?
The vendor was angry that the president exhibited a laissez-faire attitude towards battling the deadly virus. “Why didn’t he stop the plane that came from China? If he had done that, we wouldn’t be in this bad situation and our livelihoods would not be threatened.”
The plane that she was referring to was a China Southern Airlines flight that was allowed to land at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) on 26 February 2019. The flight had arrived in Nairobi despite a directive forbidding flights originating in China to land in Kenya due to the outbreak of COVID-19 in China. Kenya Airways had also by that time suspended all its flights to and from China. This particular plane carried 239 passengers, many of whom were Chinese nationals. The airport employee who posted a video of the plane landing was suspended (and later reinstated through a court order), which suggested that the plane had the government’s permission to land. The reference to this plane and the anger it has generated among the people I talked to was evident throughout all my interviews.
The vendor was angry that the president exhibited a laissez faire attitude towards battling the deadly virus. “Why didn’t he stop the plane that came from China? If he had done that, we wouldn’t be in this bad situation and our livelihoods would not be threatened.”
The weekend before the quasi-lockdown decreed by the government on Monday, 23 March 2020, I was in Nakuru County. My first stop was at the Java House located in CK Patel House in central Nakuru town. It was 10.00 a.m. and there was absolutely no customer. I found the manager sipping her coffee latte. “What’s up?” I asked her. “There’s no one in the house”.
The nonplussed manager said the coronavirus was bad for business. “Look, it is mid-morning, a peak time when customers should be flocking in for their refill, yet we’ve an empty house.”
The coffee house closes at 5 p.m., which is normally a peak hour when commuters wait for the traffic jam to ease off before heading home. “This is not a harbinger of good times,” said one of the lady waiters. “If this situation persists long enough, who knows, the management could easily send us home…this, by the way, is not good at all.”
“The incompetence of this government and President Uhuru is mindboggling,” said a lady I was meeting in Nakuru town. “Why, in God’s name, did he allow the plane from China to land at JKIA?” she furiously wondered aloud. “He should have ordered the plane to turn back, the way it came and never to allow the passengers to disembark. Do we know how many of those passengers could have been infected all the way from China? Do we know how many people they, indeed, could have infected once here in the country? Who knows where those people are and which corner of the country they are in? Did the government ever track them down?”
The lady was convinced that if the government had refused the landing of that plane, it is probable that we would not be so afraid now and there would not really have been a case for a (quasi) lockdown.
“The government now is all over issuing edicts – it must always do the wrong thing first before it turns around to sound the alarm bells,” she said. People seem to be impressed by the new Cabinet Secretary for Health, Mutahi Kagwe, I’m not. What ordinary Kenyans want to know is how, in the event of a complete lockdown, they will earn a living. Period. Endless press conferences threatening us with damnation are neither here nor here. The President recently threatened us, saying the government will crack down on anybody not adhering to the stay-at-home edict. This is uncalled for as well as unhelpful. Does he have any concrete plans for ameliorating the situation and ensuring Kenyans who live from hand to mouth are cushioned?”
Later in the evening, I was at Garden Villa, located on the western side of town as you head to Shaabab residential area. It was completely empty and the waiters were just lounging around. Garden Villa is an expansive nyama choma eatery, as well as a “watering hole” with appropriate cushioned-seat cubicles for groups of people or couples. It was glaringly in its emptiness.
Beatrice, our waitress, was not amused by coronavirus coming to Kenya: “It is no longer a death scare; it has come to actually destroy our livelihoods. I’ve three children – two in university and one is finishing high school. My job has really sustained me, I’ve been able to educate my children so far with the tips that I collect here and there from patrons like you. When there are no customers, we are finished. I’m really worried. If this situation continues like this, we’ll all be declared redundant. What will happen to my children?”
Back in Nairobi, I went to one of my usual Java House haunts. The security guard was forthright: “Hii kitu itauwa watoto wetu. Sijui leo nita peleka nini nyumbani.” This thing called coronavirus will kill our children. Today I don’t know what I will take home.
The main work of security guards like one at Java House is to ensure that patrons enjoy their house coffee without probing eyes and disturbance from the city centre’s “undesirables”, and to usher patrons inside the coffee house. They help customers find car park spaces and guard the automobiles from hoodlums. They will also offer concierge services to patrons, such as carrying stuff to their vehicles. At the end of the day, they have enough pocket money to pass through the supermarket and buy some milk and bread for tomorrow morning’s breakfast. He told me the lack of patrons meant that he would go home empty-handed. “Mungu asaidie afukuze hii coronavirus, kama siyo hivyo tumeisha.” The almighty should intervene and clear this coronavirus as quickly as possible, otherwise we’re all finished.
In the city centre, at the famous Jevanjee Park, I met a group of four middle-aged women. They were talking with each other. On the day the government ordered the people not to leave their houses after 7 p.m., they disobeyed and trooped to town. “I’m staying in the house and then what happens?” posed one. “Are my children going to feed on me?”
The women were “professional” casual labourers. Lately they have been getting manual jobs from the Nairobi County as grass cutters and street sweepers.
“We live on a day-to-day basis” said one of the women. “How on earth does the government expect us to survive?”
“Tell you what,” ventured one of the women, “yesterday I went to church because our pastor had sent word around that we must not fail to go church.” She told me she attends a Kenya Assemblies of God (KAG) church. Their pastor told them that coronavirus had come to Kenya to remind Christians that, indeed, these were the last days.
Back in Nairobi, I went to one of my usual Java House haunts. The security guard was forthright: “Hii kitu itauwa watoto wetu. Sijui leo nita peleka nini nyumbani.” This thing called coronavirus will kill our children. Today I don’t know what I will take home.
“Coronavirus is not going to be defeated by worshippers staying at home,” claimed the pastor. “It is going to be wrestled down to the ground by prayer warriors. We must condemn the evil-doer, we must never doubt our faith. We must never doubt our God, Is this the time to let our able God down? Are we doubting Him?”
“I’m a Catholic and we went to church. The parish priest, through jumuia [small community groups], sent word that we must all be in church on Sunday without fail,” said one of the woman. “The priest said the body of Christ is asking us, ‘Are you not going celebrate with me? For is this the time to forsake me?’ It is always fundamentally important to remember to keep the faith.’”
“The churches cannot, even for once, pretend that they care for our welfare,” said another woman. “In these times of economic turbulence and the coming of the corrosive coronavirus, all what the churches can tell us is to still go and congregate in congested spaces. And all what this government can tell us is to sanitise our hands. The church and the government’s work is to fleece us, the people.”
In the evening, I caught up with the same quartet outside Charlies’ restaurant that faces City Hall. It was now past five and they were hungry and angry. “How are we going home?” asked one of them in concealed desperation. All of them lived in the sprawling slums of Nairobi. Seated on the stone bench of the restaurant, they resorted to begging money from any passing man they thought they could remotely recognise.
“The churches cannot, even for once, pretend that they care for our welfare,” said another woman. “In these times of economic turbulence and the coming of the corrosive coronavirus, all what the churches can tell us is to still go and congregate in congested spaces. And all what this government can tell us is to sanitise our hands…”
The following day, I found myself in bustling Kawangware, where the coronavirus threat is real. Kawangware was deserted – many businesses were shut and the human commotion that is usually associated with the sprawling residential area was absent. I dropped in at Sakina’s kibanda (food kiosk-cum-shed) in the Coast area (Mombasani) where she sells very pocket- friendly fresh food to construction workers, bachelors, spinsters, and all manner of casual labourers. Sakina shared the kibanda with her mother, but her mom was not there on that day.
“Where’s your mother?” I asked Sakina.
“She took the kids [her four children] to shags [her rural home],” she responded. (Sakina’s rural home is right in the middle of Nyeri town, at Meeting Point.) “Business is slowly grinding to a halt and we didn’t want to take chances. At least at cucu’s [grandma’s] place, there’s food to eat…this coronavirus has dealt us a huge blow…but alhamdulillahi, it is going to be defeated by Allah.”
In times like this, said Sakina, it’s important to be steadfast and to anchor your whole self in the great faith.
A disease of the rich
At Zambezi trading centre, 19 kilometres from the city centre on the Nairobi-Nakuru Road, Nyambura, a chicken legs and liver vendor, was preparing her foodstuff for her evening customers.
“Are you not afraid of the coronavirus?” I asked her.
“Indeed I am,” she replied. “But can I eat fear? Can my children eat fear? I cannot stay in the house. I must get out to fend for my family. My husband is a salaried worker. He has to wait for 30 days to be paid his paltry pay. We cannot wait for that. It is my responsibility to supplement the ugali he brings home,” said the lady with a great chuckle.
“[President] Uhuru doesn’t care about us small farmers. He has been careless and is playing dice with our lives. After ruining our lives, he has now let this coronavirus invade our country. Why couldn’t he stop that plane from China? Its good coronavirus is infecting the rich and the powerful. They should all perish. They have caused us enough agony,” said Nyambura.
“But trust me, this coronavirus is not going to finish us because our Lord Jesus Christ is on the throne. In the name of Jesus, I condemn the disease,” she added.
She said coronavirus, like the most incompetent government she had lived through, had conspired to kill the spirit of Kenyans. “Yesterday, I paid 100 shillings from 87 to here. Can you imagine? Ordinarily the matatu fare from 87, just after Uthiru to Zambezi, is 30 shillings. For how long can one afford that kind of fare?” She said that from the Old Nation House roundabout stage to Zambezi, passengers were being charged 150 shillings. I hooked up with my freelance tout friend Davy to confirm whether it was true.
“What do you expect when the matatus have been ordered to carry half the seating capacity of their vehicles?” said the freelance tout.(The government has directed that public transport vehicles observe social distancing among their passengers, which means that these vehicles are forced to carry fewer passengers per trip.) Davy told me that many matatu proprietors had grounded their vehicles. “Hakuna haja ya kufanya kazi ya kirai”. It’s pointless to engage in an unprofitable business.
From the city centre to Zambezi, the fare is ordinarily 80 shillings during peak hours and 50 shillings during off-peak hours. “Think about it,” explained Davy. “The matatus that have chosen to be on the road are being fair.”
A 33-seater is now carrying 16 passengers. So passengers are paying 150 shillings instead of 80 shillings in normal times. The Nissan shuttles that ferry 14 passengers are now having to carry just 8 passengers. Davy said if the government was considerate, it would, at least for now, reduce the price of fuel. That way the matatu owners would not be forced to adjust the fares.
“How many people can afford to be paying 300 shillings every day to town?” asked Nyambura. “What is it then you are working for? You’ve not even eaten. And President Uhuru, instead of telling us how the government can come up with ways of helping us alleviate this burden, has gone on air to tell us about the merits of 4G Internet speed. (On March 23, President Kenyatta addressed the nation live on air, extolling the virtues of the business deal between Telcom Kenya and Google Loon, which would now allow for faster speed and easy interconnectivity.)
In the political sphere, Nakuru residents believe that the coronavirus appeared just in the nick of time to save President Uhuru and the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) team the embarrassment of a looming contest and showdown that was to take place in town at Afraha Stadium. On 21 March 2019, BBI had organised a rally to popularise its agenda. But every indication showed that this was not going to be a walk in the park for the BBI mandarins.
A 33-seater is now carrying 16 passengers. So passengers are paying 150 shillings instead of 80 shillings in normal times. Davy said if the government was considerate, it would, at least for now, reduce the price of fuel. That way the matatu owners would not be forced to adjust the fares.
“This coronavirus has just given the president some reprieve,” said a Nakuru boda boda (motorcycle rider) from Maili Sita trading centre (popularly known simply as Sita) on the Nakuru-Nyahururu Road. The rider opined that had the BBI rally taken place, the William Ruto wing of the Jubilee Party would, most certainly, have upstaged the BBI brigade. It was going to be battle a between BBI and the deputy president’s “Tanga Tanga” band of supporters.
When on 28 January 2019 President Uhuru was in Nakuru town to open a cement factory in Rongai, he detoured to Bahati constituency, where at Sita he lambasted the area MP, Kimani Ngunjiri. As he was castigating him, Ngunjiri was several metres away from the president’s motorcade. “When he left, the boda boda riders came to Ngunjiri and they were high-fiving him and laughing excitedly,” said the boda boda rider. “They promised him that when BBI lands in Nakuru, they would show President Uhuru who ruled Nakuru.”
With all the laments, speculation and tantalising gossip, it is still not clear what impact the coronavirus pandemic will have on the lives of ordinary Kenyans. Many are in still in disbelief and more worried about their livelihoods than about falling ill or dying. But what is clear is that Kenya after corona will not be the same again.
Inside the Quarantine: Fears of Further Spreading the Virus Haunt the Confined
Perhaps, it won’t take much longer before the country knows whether the mandatory quarantine strategy helped spread or stop COVID-19.
“We were flying over Juba when the announcement was made”. Chris*, not his real name, recounts to me his whereabouts when Kenya’s Cabinet Secretary for Health, Mutahi Kagwe, made the announcement that mandatory quarantining of all persons flying into Kenya would begin with immediate effect. It was early evening in Nairobi and a likely anxious nation tuned in for what was the tenth briefing from the ministry about the global COVID-19 pandemic that had made its way to Kenya, on the wings of an aircraft much like the one that ferried Chris back from a work trip to London.
Chris and I spoke a day after his arrival. He was in a hotel turned government-sanctioned quarantine facility, the Boma Hotel. The hotel, one of four Kenya Red Cross hotels that had just weeks before been placed under receivership, was dusty, with some rooms not having been cleaned for a while. Dead flies lined his windowsill. Chris complained that layers of dust on his pillowcase and bedsheets caused him discomfort. That was a minor inconvenience in comparison to the subject of our call.
Their flight, which arrived at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport on the night of Monday, March 23rd, carried what was, in Chris’s estimation, about 60 people.
“After being screened and filling out immigration forms, we were told about the Ministry of Health’s directive. We protested the directive because some of us had made arrangements to self-quarantine. Among those on our flight were students who, I think, wouldn’t have taken the flight if they thought that they would be taken into mandatory quarantine.”
Their protests would seem vain in the face of the government’s efforts to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus, which has overwhelmed some of the world’s best-equipped healthcare systems, but the response to these complaints from Ministry of Health officials was even more strange.
“The government relented and allowed us to leave the airport and go home, with orders that we report to the Kenya Medical Training Centre (KMTC) at 11:00 a.m for tests.”
Chris was picked up by his driver and recalls reaching his home at about midnight on the 23rd of March.
As he was falling asleep, Doris*, also not her real name, was on a fairly empty flight from Germany, a country hard-hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, via Amsterdam, back home.
“I was alone on my row, the two rows behind me were empty and the lady in the row next to mine also sat alone.”
Her flight touched down in Nairobi on the morning of 23rd March and taxied in. In the nine hours between the landing of Chris’ flight and Doris’, the information that passengers were given had differed.
“Our temperature was taken, then we filled a form saying that we would self-quarantine. Then we filled the older, yellow immigration form. As we did so, there was a lady shouting that we should all go to KMTC at 11:00 am for testing. That was it.”
Doris had already made plans to self-quarantine. She had found an apartment on an online booking site, AirBnB, where she says she was going to stay for the recommended 14-day quarantine. She booked an Uber, made the trip across town to her apartment in Kileleshwa, showered, changed and then booked another Uber to the KMTC.
Before they got to KMTC, if Chris and Doris were carriers of COVID-19 and were contagious, they may have spread the disease to at least three people each. Neither of them has been asked to account for their movements or the people that they came into contact with; termed by the World Health Organisation as contact-tracing. They do not yet know whether or not they have the virus, because they have yet to be tested for it. They weren’t alone on their flights home, and sadly, their experience was not unique to them.
Infection within the quarantine facilities
Both Doris and Chris are worried about the possibility that they contracted COVID-19 while they were in the throes of evident lapses and confusion that they found at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, and at the KMTC, where they would go as ordered, on the 24th of March, at 11 am.
“When we turned up at the KMTC, they closed and barricaded the gates behind us, and said that we were officially under mandatory quarantine,” Chris remembers.
Doris witnessed the furore of the now hundreds of passengers grow, with them crowding around Ministry of Health officials for answers, having just been stung by the news. She tried to hang as far back as she could to avoid coming into contact with the virus.
“We were then given three options for places that we would undergo quarantine. Boma Hotel (where Chris would eventually go), the KMTC and the Kenya School of Government (KSG) in Lower Kabete, Nairobi,” she remembers.
“Boma would cost us USD 100 (Kshs 10,000) a night (this figure was later revised downwards), and the conditions at KMTC were just awful, so I chose KSG. When we got to KSG the director of the campus told us that it would cost us USD 40 (Kshs 4,000) a night. People protested again and crowded around the officials telling us this. They then relented and said we would be charged USD 20 (Kshs 2,000) a night.”
A video taken by one of the passengers shows the proximity of the passengers to the officials, and to one another. Again, Doris wisely chose to hang back and wait until things calmed down so that she could get a room.
Chris chose to stay at the Boma hotel.
When Chris’s cohort of travellers arrived at the Boma hotel, he says there was just one receptionist at hand to meet them.
“We all herded around the reception area waiting to be checked in. I am very afraid that we may have been exposed while we were getting into quarantine!”
Later that evening, Chris heard the sounds of sirens outside his window.
A hotel staffer told him that ambulance workers in hazmat suits were there to evacuate a fellow traveller, an elderly lady who allegedly fell ill.
“We are all so worried”.
Even with the inconveniences they have experienced, both Doris and Chris’s worry extends to the unanswered question they both have – were they both complicit in some way in the spread of COVID-19?
“If the government was serious about a mandatory quarantine, why did they let us go home first?” Chris asks, the tone of his voice deep and serious, unfettered by the muffles and crackling on the phone line.
“There were people on our flight who took public transport from the airport and to KMTC. How many people have they been in touch with?”
The question of how the virus spreads is no longer in contention, but there are concerns about the handling of passengers who were being put in isolation in order to contain COVID-19’s spread in Kenya.
Dr Ahmed Kalebi, the founder and CEO of Lancet Laboratories, which is among Kenya’s first private laboratories to offer PCR tests for COVID-19 (Polymerase Chain Reaction tests detect the genetic material of COVID-19, called RNA), shares his worries about the possible contagion that people in the mandatory quarantine may be facing.
“For me, it is a big scare. I am privy to what has been going on in some of those facilities and it has been a bit of a mess.”
“If two hundred people go into a hotel and three or four of them have COVID-19, by keeping them in close proximity we are creating an incubating chamber (for the virus).”
Dr Kalebi believes that in late April, Kenyan cases of COVID-19 will have risen exponentially. Government models publicized on Monday 30th March put Kenya at possibly having 10,000 cases by that time.
Several accounts from persons currently in mandatory quarantine speak to the potential for this, especially as they were being transferred into quarantine facilities. Doris, who was being quarantined at the Kenya School of Government facility, Chris at the Boma hotel, and Caleb* (not his real name), a traveller who is currently in quarantine at the Kenyatta University Conference Centre, all give similar accounts about how risky the first day of their return was.
They were all supposed to be part of a Ministry of Health-led mass testing campaign of the over two thousand Kenyans currently in quarantine facilities, being carried out beginning the weekend ending March 29th. Chris took a photo of a Ministry of Health official in a Hazmat suit from a common area at the Boma hotel.
Doris, Chris, Caleb and other travelers in quarantine that I spoke to all say that they feel healthy, save for a few coughs and sniffs which they hope are signs of a cold rather than COVID-19, but they may not be out of the woods, even as the days wind down to the end of their quarantine.
“The Coronavirus takes between two to fourteen days to incubate,” says Dr Kalebi.
“If tests were done at day seven, which is what the government is doing this weekend (weekend ending March 29th), you may have only a few people testing positive, who would be taken to more stringent quarantine facilities. Then you wait another week. Assume more people get infected. On day 14, when you are releasing them, people may have been infected in quarantine.”
Fears that the government quarantine facilities may become petri dishes for the spread of the virus are valid, but over-estimated, according to Professor Omu Anzala, who specializes in virology and immunology. He’s also part of the taskforce set up by the government to deal with the COVID-19 outbreak in Kenya.
“There is that possibility but we have not seen anybody go more than 14 to 15 days without having come down with the disease. We have not seen anybody who has gone more than 15 days who is not showing symptoms but is secreting the virus.”
He does say that these still are early days and that the government, like all governments, is learning as it goes deeper into fighting the virus.
It won’t be long before Doris and Chris get out of quarantine. Perhaps, it won’t take much longer before the country knows whether the mandatory quarantine strategy helped spread or stop COVID-19.
This article was first published by Africa Uncensored.
Reflections7 days ago
Coronavirus Outbreak out of Control in US
Videos1 week ago
The Political Economy of Coronavirus: Dr David Ndii Speaks
Op-Eds6 days ago
Slaying the Giant: An Epidemiologist’s Perspective on How Kenya Can Tackle COVID-19
Op-Eds1 week ago
Lockdown: Flying Blind in the Season of Coronavirus
Politics2 weeks ago
A Short History of Constitutions and What Politicians Do to Them
Politics7 days ago
Inside the Quarantine: Fears of Further Spreading the Virus Haunt the Confined
Politics4 days ago
COVID-19: Uganda Must Take Robust Measures to Defeat the Coronavirus Pandemic
Ideas1 week ago
Capitalism: The First Victim of the Coronavirus