Our world, as we know it, has been turned upside down by the coronavirus (COVID-19). The virus has not just exposed our fragility as human beings, but has also raised our awareness of our interconnectedness as people sharing one planet with viruses and microbes.
First identified in China in November 2019, COVID-19 has since spread to more than 100 countries worldwide, including Italy, the USA, UK, Germany and 24 African countries so far.
The magnitude of this pandemic, as well as its fast geographical spread, has not only paralysed both rich and poor nations, but also caused global panic, creating gripping fear for our lives. On March 11, 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the COVID-19 a pandemic. At the time of writing this article, the pandemic had killed 8,000 people and infected 200,000.
The virus, which experts says is most certainly passed from animals, in this case the bat, has already infected seven people in Kenya, if the government reports are anything to go by. Other African countries that have reported its presence include South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana, Rwanda, Tanzania and Ethiopia. For many Kenyans, it was not a matter of if, but when the virus would strike. The country is a major travel hub in East and Central Africa, with nearly every major global airlines stopping at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) in Nairobi.
After seemingly dilly-dallying for some time, President Uhuru Kenyatta, finally, on March 15, ordered schools and institutions of higher learning to close. He also banned political rallies and religious gatherings.
However, despite the ban, on Sunday, March 15, Kenyan churches were packed to capacity with throngs of people, apparently oblivious of the coronavirus pandemic and the risk of spreading the disease. They (the churches) dulled the congregants’ fears and cried to God for protection. My neighbours even held a prayer fellowship in my neighbourhood to pray against the demonic virus as many have christened it, except that COVID-19 is not a demon.
In a country whose easy dalliance with the supernatural is legendary, this is not surprising. In moments of political, social and ecological crises, Kenyans turn to God, supposedly for guidance. Such challenges are seen through the prism of religion. In a country with a highly educated and exposed population, pandemics like COVID-19 and HIV/AIDs are still said to be caused by the devil and other dark forces. Even when science is very clear on the genesis of the viruses, the majority of Kenyans and other people elsewhere will still interpret them as the invention of the devil. Not surprising in a country where nearly 85 per cent of the population is Christian.
Kenya, in particular, is a highly religious country with diverse religious groups with high levels of religious participation across various religious traditions. Belonging and participating in various religious activities is essentially important to many people across the country. A 2015 study showed that for 95 per cent of Kenyans, faith informs how they conduct their daily lives.
Given the important role of religion in the lives of millions of people, it is important that we change how we practise our faiths in the face of this global pandemic that has already heavily impacted all of us. Already, the virus has killed 19 priests in Italy, which sadly means that no one is immune from the virus, not even our religious leaders.
Similarly, no amount of prayers and faith healing could cure this virus. African Christians have been praying for a cure for AIDS/HIV and Ebola for decades not but not a single person has certainly been cured of these dangerous viruses. The same logic should apply to COVID-19.
This is not to say that prayers and faith don’t work. Neither does it mean they have no significance in the lives of people. Faith is the glue that holds people together in moments of crisis like this. It is also a purveyor of hope in moments of immense anxieties and fears. Yet, in times of global pandemics like the coronavirus, science and medicine would seem the more reliable solution. After all, it is science that has continually sought cures for these epidemics. The antiretroviral drugs and the Ebola vaccine (not prayers and demon-bashing) have given a new lease of life to millions of people around the world. It is also science that will come up with a cure for COVID-19, not miracles and faith healing.
Given the important role of religion in the lives of millions of people, it is important that we change how we practise our faiths in the face of this global pandemic…
Yet, science and religion are not enemies, neither are they in competition with each other. There is nothing wrong with people praying and casting out the demons of disease if that is how they understand it, even as they wash hands, self-isolate, self-quarantine and maintain social distance, as advised by science and medical practitioners. Faith and science should not be in contradiction with each other. Each plays important and significant roles in our lives. Faith and prayers hold us together in hope and community while science tackles the virus in scientific and practical ways.
Yet, the easy resort to religion and prayers as the only solution during times of crisis like this is not only problematic but is also risky and reckless. It takes away our focus from holding our negligent governments accountable. The Kenyan healthcare system has been struggling for decades, but the ruling elite does not care because it can afford to seek the best medical care abroad. Our blind religious faith does not allow us to question the massive inequality in our healthcare system, in particular, and in Kenyan society in general. We also do not ask why the poor lack sanitation and why they live in dehumanising conditions.
The national day of prayer and other diversionary tactics
This is not a far-fetched assertion: Every time we are faced with a crisis as a country, the government, in collusion with religious leaders, call for prayers. Saturday, March 21, 2019 was slated as a national day of prayer by President Uhuru Kenyatta, who asked Kenyans to pray for forgiveness. Kenyans who have suffered years of neglect and broken healthcare systems must ask what we are repenting for. Who between Kenyans and the government should be repenting for the sins of the nation, for the inaction, corruption and bad governance that have seriously put our health at risk for decades?
It seems to me that the government wants to divert attention from its inept and tardy response to the pandemic, while religious leaders are seeking for relevance and respectability at a time when the virus has rendered them impotent. The national prayer day called by the government is meant to dull our anxieties. It is a diversionary tactic to manage the public’s fears and soothe our anxieties as we are socialised not to squarely put the blame where it belongs: on the government.
Kenyans who have suffered years of neglect and broken healthcare systems must ask what we are repenting for. Who between Kenyans and the government should be repenting for the sins of the nation, for the inaction, corruption and bad governance that have seriously put our health at risk for decades?
Across the world, religious leaders are making hard and painful decisions to close their worship sanctuaries. Because religious services, by their very nature, bring together large groups of people, houses of worship in Africa are potential hubs for virus transmission. In developed democracies, religious leaders are scrambling to understand the COVID-19, even as they as find ways of protecting their congregations, while African clergy are either denying the virus or praying against the demons that cause the virus.
In Saudi Arabia, the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca’s holy sites have been substantially reduced. The Vatican is streaming mass on television. Rabbis in many parts of the world are discouraging their followers from hugging and shaking hands. These are hard and painful decisions, but practical and important measures to keep followers alive.
Secondly, there is evidence in South Korea that the virus spread quickly because of the social interactions of the worshippers. South Korea was the first country to report significant coronavirus infections outside of China. In New Rochelle in New York, a synagogue, as reported by Slate.com, was the centre of an outbreak of coronavirus that eventually led to the summoning of the National Guard.
In Houston in the US, the world-renowned Pastor Joel Osteen of Lakewood Church, which attracts upwards of 50,000 people, has closed his church. Similarly, the famous megachurch pastor T.D Jakes of Potters House suspended church services for his thousands of followers.
Church business as usual in Kenya
While there were only seven confirmed cases of coronavirus in Kenya, by the time of writing this article, there was general panic in the country, which suggest that everyone should avoid crowds. Yet, religious leaders across the country have yet to cancel church services. Only the All Saints Cathedral, Christ is the Answer Ministries (CITAM), Presbyterian Church of East Africa (PCEA), Nairobi Chapel, Mavuno church and Jamia Mosque had suspended mass worship by the third week of March. Instead, many have provided water and soap for members to wash their hands at the entrances of the church compounds. While washing hands has been suggested as one of the ways to fight the virus, it does not cancel the benefits of social distancing. Are religious leaders feigning ignorance about the latter, or are they simply turning a blind eye to this important measure? I posit a number of theories to explain this lackadaisical behaviour.
First, church spaces in Kenya are not about people; they are about the church founders who use the tithes and offerings to enrich themselves and live a life of luxury. They are never about people-centred theologies or a gospel of social justice, but about personalities. This is the logic that underlies the majority of spiritual spaces, especially those that are prosperity gospel allied, where the church founder’s main concern is not to build a community, but to make money.
Second, Kenyan churches are generally small and crowded in mostly poorly ventilated buildings and semi-structures. Except for mosques, and the more established mainstream churches, the majority are in bad condition. Many Pentecostal/evangelical church services, for example, are held in tents or shelters made of iron sheets and with poor sanitation. These are hotbeds for the spread of the disease.
Why are the majority of Kenya’s popular churches in such dilapidated conditions? Why don’t tithers demand for safe and healthy spaces of worship? Don’t the poor tither have dignity? These are questions that the Kenyan religious population need to interrogate!
Church spaces in Kenya are not about people; they are about the church founders who use the tithes and offerings to enrich themselves and live a life of luxury. They are never about people-centred theologies or a gospel of social justice, but about personalities.
The majority of Pentecostal clergy rarely invested in building decent churches because they don’t think about the comfort and welfare of their members, but only about offering and tithes. Prophet Owuor of the Ministry of Repentance and Holiness, for example, hires school venues and tents, where his followers meet on Sundays. The reason he has given his followers for not building a permanent sanctuary is that Jesus Christ is coming back to rapture the church, hence there is no need for a physical church. However, he built himself a palatial home, complete with a bunker, where he can self-quarantine himself, while the millions of his followers who live a life of squalour can easily die from the coronavirus infection. Many other big and smaller churches have not invested in building decent spaces of worship yet their founders live in opulence and luxury. It is about them, not the people.
Yet the behaviour of the clergy in Kenya is hardly surprising. Rather, it mirrors class divisions in a country where religious elites, just like their political counterparts, have created heaven on earth for themselves, while ordinary Kenyans live in hell. The Kenyan clergy, just like our politicians, does not care for its members. It uses them to ascend to power (political and religious) and respectability. This is why the status of our churches mirrors the status of our public hospitals and schools and informal settlements. Many of our public facilities, just like many houses of worship, are in terrible condition, with no running water and poor sanitation. Yet pastors rarely raise the issue of the sorry state of our broken healthcare systems, even though some churches have built a semblance of health clinics to provide some form of medicare.
More importantly, religious leaders do not want to call off church services because they will be rendered irrelevant. Many a clergy use the pulpit, not just to mint money, but also to prop up their egos and advance their social status. The clergy are in the business of making money. Many churches in Kenya, particularly those of Pentecostal and charismatic church inclinations, are run like business enterprises, so closing a church has serious financial implications. In Africa, the church is an enterprise, just like the stock market: and their owners are afraid that their business empires will crash like stock markets.
Third, there is a fear that COVID-19 will expose the clergy’s dark underbelly and call to question Africa’s faith-healing and miracle industry. For so long, religious leaders have trafficked in miracles and faith-healing. COVID-19 has rendered them incapable of healing the sick and incapable of praying away the coronavirus. In fact, the virus has rendered them impotent and fragile; they have no power to pray away the disease or perform dubious miracles.
Fourth, the clergy has been averse to scientific discoveries because science makes their miraculous shenanigans questionable. Prayers for healing have not calmed a shocked and scared populace. Many a clergy has frowned on science, medicine and theological education, instead spiritualising even non-spiritual matters as serious as the coronavirus pandemic. Science shakes the foundation of their spiritual teachings. After all, and in the case of this pandemic, science has proved to be more practical and reliable than faith.
Watch: Religion in the Age of Coronavirus: Dr Damaris Parsitau Speaks
These fly-by-night pastors have also trafficked in guilt and false prophecies to shock people into a particular way of being religious. Self-proclaimed Prophet Owuor has trafficked in fear-mongering threats, and has even claimed that he had prophesied the pandemic. He also said it would kill people in Asia because the continent rejected his prophecy. In Kenya, a section of the public has cajoled him to unleash his “mighty prophetic powers” to fend off the virus. They have also called on him to pray it away.
Apostles James Maina Ng’ang’a’s video on coronavirus – where he is unable to pronounce the word coronavirus – showed not just his sheer ignorance, but also how ill-equipped he and his ilk are when it comes to offering solutions to such complex 21st-century problems.
A Meru-based Pentecostal clergyman with a huge following angered many Kenyans when he said that coronavirus is a global hoax and that God has instructed him not to cancel church service because there is no coronavirus.
Fifth, many of the clergy have not built an infrastructure that would enable them to continue their ministry in times of crisis like this. While many pastors have invested in TV stations, radio frequencies, social media pages, YouTube and websites, the intention has always been to win souls and tithes that will make them more powerful. Investing in sound infrastructure that would have allowed them to go online or on radio or televised church services at times of crisis like this was never part of their plan because their short-sightedness does not allow them to rethink about ministry for 21st-century challenges, including climate change and its links to our health. The available infrastructure has been mainly directed at international audiences, not local congregations. It has also never been about their congregations but about how they can use such platforms to minister to gain respectability, online audiences and donations.
The question is, where is that spiritual power to perform miracles and heal people of coronavirus when we really need it? Prophet Owuor, who claims to have caused the virus because the world has rejected his gospel of fear and threats, is impotent. A couple of Sundays ago, he preached without an interpreter, as many of his followers wore masks and kept a safe distance from each other for fear of catching a disease he supposedly brought to the nation for rejecting his message. His sermons have always been fear-inducing. He preachers about a dreadful God who kills people on a whim. It is interesting that a man who claims that the clouds clap for him and the glory of God descends on him while preaching cannot pray away a global pandemic that can infect him and his retinue of thousands of followers in Kenya and beyond.
More importantly is that religious leaders are no longer the voice of the voiceless, the conscience of the nation and defenders of social justice. It is about them and not the vulnerable. I have not seen any statement or press conference by the interreligious forum or the National Council of Churches of Kenya (NCCK) or the Evangelical Alliance of Kenya or the Conference of Catholic Bishops to assure a nation in a moment of deep fear and frustrations.
Yet, many leaders have the audacity to force members to go to church. Where is the voice of religious leaders in Kenya? Who will call out the government’s bluff for putting the lives of Kenyans in extreme danger? Where is Prophet Owuor, Kenya’s “spiritual president” who “resurrects the dead” and claims to have prophesied about COVID-19? Where are the miracle workers who claim to have the powers to delete HIV/AID, cancer, and diabetes? The refusal of many churches to cancel church services must be questioned by all. But even more importantly, the Kenyan religious community must defy their clergy and stay at home for their own health and that of their families and communities. I suggest that in light of this moment of great social anxieties, all religious activities must be cancelled to help contain the spread of the disease.
Exposing the sham
If there is anything we have learned from this experience, it is that the miracle and faith-healing industry is nothing but a sham. No religious leader has the power to heal you. Science is our only hope. Going to church right now is not just the height of spiritual carelessness, but also an act of foolishness. When the virus is under control, we can all troop back to our houses of worship.
In developed countries, pastors have been at the forefront of ministering to their congregations at home. Many have come up with innovative ways of being Christian in the age of the coronavirus. They have asked communities of faith to change not just their usual religious practices, but their worship as well. Parishioners are not only conducting mass online but offering online prayer support and educating congregations about the scientific ways of mitigating the virus.
More importantly, they have come up with spiritual resources to help their followers remain spiritually connected during such times. These clergy and churches are institutions that are congregation-centred, not individual-centred. They have invested in infrastructure for a coronavirus pandemic and 21st-century challenges. For such churches and congregations, God is not found in a physical church, but everywhere and God does not speak to the clergy alone.
There is need to deinstitutionalise the church and question our high dependence on the so-called men and women of God. We must re-evaluate their moral and intellectual standards, and we must critically debate the theological foundations of the church in Kenya.
In developed countries, pastors have been at the forefront of ministering to their congregations at home. Many have come up with innovative ways of being Christian in the age of the coronavirus.
The Kenyan Christian needs to be socialised not to depend so much on the clergy. God does not live in church but is everywhere. No clergyman has the monopoly and direct line to God. God lives in our minds and hearts. We can have church with ourselves and our families. The pastor has no magic to ward off coronavirus. He is as afraid as you are. But he can be a voice of hope and reason.
Many churches and clergy have denied science and climate change. The evangelical and Pentecostal churches, which are the fastest growing churches in Africa, Latin America and Oceania, have always been at odds with science and climate change. One of the effects of climate change is the spread of pandemics like this. As human beings, we share the world with viruses and they attack us. Yet we have refused to be good stewards of the environment and we have denied climate change despite tremendous scientific evidence about its links to our human body.
The sheer magnitude and fast spread of the virus has paralysed the world and caused huge fear and confusion. For many religious people, it has caused an ecclesiological conundrum. Fear and confusion have taken over reason. Yet scientific data available calls us to do things differently; wash hands, minimise unnecessary travel, stay home while sick to reduce infecting others, keeping social distance, avoiding large crowds, such as church services, and maintaining social distance.
Different ways of being religious
What does it mean to be church in the age of coronavirus? How much should it matter that we continue to physically gather in spaces of worship in the midst of a pandemic that by its very nature is anti-crowding? Isn’t it the wise thing to do that the clergy should call off all religious activities to save lives and avoid mass spread of the pandemic? Is it not a death sentence to encourage people to go to church at such a time as this? Does it make any sense at all for people to continue to troop to churches, and other spaces of worship for prayer, fellowship and community making, when such actions put people in serious danger? Why do pastors have such a hold on peoples’ abilities to think? Is God only found in churches and mosques? Why are Kenyan churches clergy-centric and not people-centric? Can the African and Kenyan clergy spring to action and guide their congregations and provide the much- needed leadership in an era of crippling fear and uncertainties?
For many religious people, this time calls for many ways of being. It calls on us to deinstitutionalise faith and rethink innovative ways of being spiritual communities. It calls on us to decentralise the role of a clergy that does not think about us but about themselves. It calls on us to give science a chance, even as we continue to pray and hope and take care of each other. Taking care of each other is a spiritual exercise. This is the time to be good neighbours. This is the time for us to think about compassion and empathy, After all, science and faith are not in contradiction with each other.
Now is the time to ground ourselves in a gospel of social justice, not fake miracles and questionable cures.
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.
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