A dozen military trucks roll out of the memorial cemetery in Bergamo, northern Italy, on the evening of March 19, 2020. Three more follow them. Each is carrying bodies that have been piling up for days inside the cemetery church because the city crematorium cannot cope with the deaths from the coronavirus pandemic.
One of the coffins being loaded onto the trucks by forklift holds the body of 74-year-old Italian software engineer Duilio Scaricamazza, recently returned from an East African business trip that took him to Uganda, Kenya and Djibouti in early February.
The closest the world has come to this scale of tragedy from a contagion in recent times are the Ebola outbreaks in West Africa, which the World Health Organisation classified as a public health emergency of international concern in July last year.
Videos of the military trucks are the only ritual of Duilio’s final journey through which his family and friends will reach closure. He had passed all the screening tests at the departure and arrival lounges in Kampala and Nairobi. Airport thermometers and thermal scanners, notorious for failing to detect Ebola, serious acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and H1N1 influenza, are no match for the fever, cough and shortness of breath that are the symptoms of the coronavirus disease.
Those who contract the coronavirus can sometimes fail to show any of these symptoms and it is not clear if Duilio was infected before his return home to Italy but, in less than a month, he was dead from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
On December 31, 2019, Chinese authorities reported to the WHO country office that they had detected a pneumonia of unknown cause in Wuhan. WHO subsequently classified the outbreak as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern on January 30, 2020, giving it its name, COVID-19, on February 11, 2020, and declaring it a pandemic a month later.
“Once you have a system that warns you of an oncoming pandemic like this one, you will have the time to map out your immediate areas of focus. For example, had Kenya had an early warning system that could show us where the first case would potentially come from, we would have cancelled flights to and from those places as a national security priority”, says anthropologist and media columnist Gabriel Oguda.
After news of the epidemic first broke in Wuhan, where 91 Kenyan students live and nine artistes were visiting, Ambassador Sarah Serem decreed that these 100 people would not be repatriated for fear of infecting one another, and bringing the disease home.
Less than a month after Serem’s statement, on February 27, 2020, Kenya Airways suspended airport security guard Ali Gure from his job for posting on his social media page a photograph of a Chinese airline landing at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport with 239 passengers on board.
The Law Society of Kenya, two doctors and a lawyer obtained a High Court order the following day temporarily stopping flights from China and other coronavirus hotspots. Jolted by Justice James Makau’s order, which also required the government to take robust measures to prepare for the virus, President Uhuru Kenyatta established a coronavirus task force and ordered the completion of an isolation facility in seven days.
By then the horse had bolted and the country had begun a hopeless search for Patient Zero. No one seemed to know where to find him or her.
A fortnight after the court decision, Kenya announced it had found its first COVID-19 case—a 27-year-old arriving from the United States through London. Just two days later, on March 16, 2020, Kenyatta ordered a shutdown of schools, workplaces and a ban on large gatherings—and called a national day of prayer.
Erroneously described as a flu-like disease, COVID-19 is actually the collapse of the breathing system when the lungs swell and fill with fluid.
By then the horse had bolted and the country had begun a hopeless search for Patient Zero
Dr Warurua Mugo, a Nairobi-based chest specialist, explains that the virus enters the body through the nose or mouth and makes a home in the air sacs where it infects the protective epithelial cells, hooks itself onto membranes, and begins to multiply thus closing off the supply of oxygen and causing swelling in the lungs as they fill with fluid. The patient is overwhelmed by a sensation of drowning, and only a respirator and supplemental oxygen can hold death at bay because there is often the risk of multiple organ failure or septic shock.
“[When] WHO declared the first case of [COVID-19], that’s the day the president should have summoned the Health minister and asked him to constitute that corona team. We needed not to wait for the virus to start causing havoc before starting to run all over the place”, says Oguda.
What started as a droplet has turned into a steady trickle, with cases popping up in rural spots where people arriving from Europe and the United States have visited.
By March 15, 2020, Kenyatta felt compelled to order suspension of travel into the country except for national and permanent residents, self-quarantine for those who had arrived 14 days earlier, a shutdown of schools, and heightened hand hygiene and physical distancing.
With the count of COVID-19 cases reaching 25 in the country, some 96 people traced, tested and released, and the search on to trace 700 others believed to have come into contact with the infected, tighter restrictions are coming into force. Kenyatta’s new salesman, the former spin-master and one-time information communication technology minister Mutahi Kagwe, has been gently turning the screws since taking charge as Health Cabinet Secretary, with the country headed into a likely lockdown. Bars and restaurants have been closed, worship congregations banned, funeral attendance has been limited to only 15 family members and the number of passengers allowed in a public transport vehicle cut by half as exhortations to increase physical distance and wash hands regularly have doubled.
The patient is overwhelmed by a sensation of drowning, and only a respirator and supplemental oxygen can hold death at bay
Although Kenya was the first country on the continent to go into a 30-day slowdown, it has been swiftly followed by South Africa, which announced a 21-day lockdown and suspended all flights. Nigeria and Egypt, which identified COVID-19 patients ahead of Kenya, have similarly ordered lockdowns, as have Uganda and Rwanda, Angola, Burkina Faso and Namibia which were initially measured in their response. Tanzania and Sierra Leone, both of which were hesitant to take strong action, are following suit.
“It is overwhelming”, says Dr Ouma Oluga, the secretary-general of the Kenya Medical Practitioners and Dentists Union. “Doctors and health workers are a worried lot. Political directives that might be [well-intentioned] are being issued without adequate preparation on the ground, and therefore not congruent with reality”.
Countries have been cautioned against fighting the pandemic blindfolded, and as the WHO Director-General, Tedros Ghebreyesus, said on March 16, 2020, the way to fight back is through “testing, testing and testing”.
“Our numbers are likely to be underestimated because of low testing capacity”, Oluga adds. “Stringent criteria on who to test, because not everybody needed to be tested, meant waiting for people to be ill before testing”.
Danni Askini, an American healthcare professional, was billed $34,927 (Sh3.7 million) for the treatment she received after contracting Covid-19. Testing alone cost her $907 (Sh96,142). India’s government announced a 4,500 Rupees (Sh6,255) cap on what private laboratories can charge for two polymerase chain reaction tests for coronavirus.
The coronavirus epidemic is also showing up Kenya’s low investment in research. The National Influenza Laboratory in Nairobi, the Kenya Medical Research Institute (Kemri) in Nairobi, Kisumu and Kilifi as well as the University of Nairobi have the capacity to test for the coronavirus, and could be supported by private laboratories at Aga Khan University Teaching Hospital and Lancet Kenya. The shortage of testing kits has meant that results, which would typically come in after six to eight hours, are instead available in 24 hours. Chinese billionaire Jack Ma and his Alibaba Foundation donated 1.1 million test kits to Africa this week, with Kenya slated to receive 20,000 test kits, 100,000 masks and 1,000 medical suits and face shields.
What started as a droplet has turned into a steady trickle, with cases popping up in rural spots where people arriving from Europe and the United States had visited
There are two ways to become immune: one is to experience the infection to create antibodies, or receive a vaccine to stimulate antibodies without experiencing the disease. Britain had initially opted to tough it out and wait for those who would die of COVID-19 to do so before the pandemic stabilised, thereby creating what scientists refer to as herd immunity. It changed tack after WHO admonished the strategy: “Not testing alone. Not contact tracing alone. Not quarantine alone. Not social distancing alone. Do it all”, said Ghebreyesus.
“Herd immunity eventually develops but over a long period time of continuous exposure. I disagree with epidemiologists who expose everyone who expect immediate herd immunity because it can develop after 50 to 60 years . . . you lose it with time . . . the casualties would be too high, and vulnerable people will die”, Oluga says.
Shutdowns are an attempt to break transmission in order to enable health services to regroup and deal with the cases that show up. But the messaging has not been without its light moments. Justifying the ban on bars, Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni said, “Drunkards sit close to one another. They speak with saliva coming out of their mouth. They are a danger to themselves. All these [merrymaking activities] are suspended for a month”.
The irony of asking Kenya to go into lockdown when much of its population is already cooped up in congested and unsanitary residential areas, has been completely lost on the government. According to the Economic Survey 2019, there were 14,865,900 people working jobs in the informal sector. “The informal sector is characterized by small scale activities, easy entry and exit, skills majorly gained from vocational schools, less capital investment, no or limited job security and self-employment”.
“This sector excludes illegal activities,” the Survey adds. These statistics belie the precarious nature of the jobs in the informal sector: they are day-wage occupations that finance hand-to-mouth survival. Only 2,765,100 people are in formal wage employment and just 152,200 are in self-employment.
The Kenyan Section of the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ-Kenya) has appealed to the government to issue directives on food prices and other basic commodities as well as medicines and items that will be important in preventing and treating COVID-19.
The coronavirus epidemic is also showing up Kenya’s low investment in research
Additionally, ICJ-Kenya has urged the government to develop and implement socio-economic responses for Kenyans in informal employment who are not able to “work from home” and who would need assistance in meeting their basic needs.
Big economic players like tourism and travel, as well as horticulture, are in shutdown in an economy that had been projected to grow at 6.2 per cent. Central Bank of Kenya governor Patrick Njoroge announced that Kenya would be seeking $350 million emergency assistance from the World Bank.
Relief offered so far by the government in the form of free hand sanitisers, Loon balloons from which 4G internet will increase mobile phone coverage, and waiver of mobile money transaction fees charged by banks, does little to address the lived realities of people. Digital contact tracking is emerging as one of the tools—albeit controversial—for tackling the pandemic. Correspondence to Safaricom seeking confirmation that the firm would be assisting in tracking passengers who arrived in the country early this year—especially given that two Chinese telecommunication companies were able to track the movement of people out of Wuhan in the early days of the epidemic—did not receive a response.
Salome Bukachi, professor of medical anthropology at the University of Nairobi, says dialogue with the community can contribute to creating protocols for quarantine, lockdown and isolation in a manner that balances respect for social backgrounds and public health needs.
Alessandro Scarci, an Italian lawyer based in Kenya for the past 20 years who has been following developments in his home country, says no health system can withstand the pressure from the pandemic. Milan, which is one of the wealthiest parts of Europe, has seen one of the best health systems collapse. “Even if you think you can improve the health system, without 1,000 per cent containment, you cannot manage this pandemic if you do not contain people”, says Scarci. “Unless there are plans to distribute food and water for free in poor residential areas, and the armed services patrol the streets, there is going to be a riot,” he adds ominously.
Oluga agrees that a lockdown is probably the best option, but for developing countries with insufficient cash reserves and chronic underfunding of social protection, this path is fraught with difficulty. Some 2.5 million people live in slums in Kenya, where houses can be as small as 12 feet by 12 feet, without reliable water or sanitation services.
Acts of austerity belie the crisis waiting to explode in Kenya and on the continent. Treatment requires isolation beds, respirators and oxygen. And it requires people. So far, Kenya has announced that it has trained 1,100 health workers. Those numbers will prove woefully inadequate if more infections show up.
Milan, which is one of the wealthiest parts of Europe, has seen one of the best health systems collapse
Shortages of testing materials and capacity, as well as the low numbers of healthcare workers has meant that where one patient is diagnosed with the disease, seven doctors are in isolation, he adds. The effect on an already strained health workforce is likely to be devastating.
In Nairobi, nurses at Mbagathi Hospital—the institution designated as the isolation centre for COVID-19—went on strike to protest against uneven training and unavailability protective gear. Moreover, there is a limit to the number of patients healthcare workers can handle.
Already, the number of people currently being traced is quickly outstripping the 120-bed capacity at Mbagathi, the additional 60 beds at the Kenyatta National Hospital and the 300 reserve places at the Kenyatta University Teaching and Referral Hospital. Around the country, Moi Teaching and Referral Hospital (25), Kakamega Hospital (25), Meru County’s Level 5 Hospital (20), Coast General Hospital (19) and King Fahd Hospital in Lamu (8) bring the national total to just under 600 beds.
Still, questions linger about what will happen on April 16 when the 30-day measures announced by the government are supposed to be reviewed. What is the end-game in managing the COVID-19 epidemic in Kenya? After the lapse of the first 30-day measures, what would be the next steps? What are the best and worst-case scenarios for managing COVID-19 in Kenya after April 16? These questions were sent to CS Kagwe and to the Principal Secretary at the Ministry of Health, Susan Mochache, with no responses forthcoming.
On Tuesday, March 24, 2020, Law Society of Kenya lawyer Ochiel Dudley said the government had not filed its contingency plan for tackling the coronavirus as required by the High Court—but the judge was hesitant to ‘recall a general from the battlefront’.
So far, official scenario mapping has appeared to focus on surveillance and containing the spread of the pandemic. “We need to invest in the clinical set-up beyond capacity and think about what are we doing when people come to hospital”, says Oluga. “If treating, what we are doing needs to be endorsed and published in the form of second, practical guidelines”. Besides the headaches of infrastructure in terms of availability of beds in intensive care, the supply of oxygen ventilators and other materials will likely be complicated by the greatly increased demand in the global market.