Health: How The Kenyan Government Responded To The Covid 19 Pandemic

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Mutahi Kagwe during his daily press briefings. Image from https://africanarguments.org/2020/04/calm-confusion-how-kenya-covid-19-frontman-lost-his-sheen/

In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Government of Kenya and the Ministry of Health put out precautions and guidelines to curb its spread and offer guidance on management. To safeguard their health, people were required to adhere to a new set of policy changes spanning a wide array of areas from travel to education to how we interact with each other.

The Ministry of Health put out a blanket set of measures under three key areas, wearing masks, hygiene and social distancing. The wearing of masks in public was made mandatory and was enforced by police, sometimes violently, even to the point of death. Police brutality while enforcing the new regulations led to a national outcry and public protest demanding police accountability enough to force the president to address it.

Hygiene

They recommended the utmost care be taken when it comes to hygiene. Hand washing areas and sanitization units were set up in public areas and people were required to wash their hands or use alcohol-based hand sanitisers before going into buildings. All buildings and shared public areas such as markets and bus stops were mandated by law to set up hygiene stations. With time, they also began to check people’s temperature to ensure it was within the acceptable range. Ministry of Health also give guidelines on Home Based Care Guidelines For Coronavirus Patients

Social Distancing & Travel

Social distancing was implemented in all public shared spaces including offices, supermarkets, banks and restaurants with the most visible changes in the public transport sector. Aeroplanes were grounded when international travel was temporarily halted. Kenya, like other nations, temporarily closed her borders. The measures were also effected for train users but not nearly as rigorously as they were for matatus and buses. Matatus and buses which are the most common way of travelling were by law required to carry no more than 60% of their capacity. Passengers were adequately spaced out. The seats had labels indicating where it was acceptable to sit.

This decrease in the number of passengers per trip meant a decrease in profits for Public Service Vehicles (PSVs). The PSVs then transferred this cost to commuters even though the government had made a statement about fares not going up. There was a ban on night travel which was contested and stopped in court by activist, Okiya Omtata with the court ruling that it was a violation of civil rights. When it became clear that the highest numbers of cases were in Nairobi, Kwale, Kilifi and Mombasa counties a partial lockdown was instituted in April. For more read The Impact Of Covid-19 Pandemic On Travel And Tourism In Kenya

Physical Contact & Visits

The Ministry of Health encouraged people to limit physical contact, discouraging the customary ways of greeting each other such as shaking hands and exchanging hugs. People were discouraged from non-essential travel and movement, such as visiting friends and family, just because. This was especially discouraged in the case of visiting older relatives such as grandparents who are more susceptible to infection. This directive extended to offices as well, with employers being advised to let their staff who could reasonably do so, work from home. This was widely adopted by many companies and organizations that could afford to do so.

Public Gatherings & Funerals

There was also a ban on public gatherings and a prohibition on overnight events and vigils to limit the crowding of people in one place. Politicians as is their custom publicly flouted the ban on public gatherings with the top three men, President Uhuru, Odinga and Ruto all holding rallies attended by thousands of Kenyans.

The number of people who could attend funerals was limited with the police present at some of the earlier burials, inspiring fear in many. The number of people allowed to attend varied and was at one point, 100 total guests with only 15 immediate family members allowed at the graveside. Feasting at funerals was also banned.

The Ministry of Health directives pertaining to the burying of the dead were among the most erratic and problematic. In the beginning, before it was confirmed that the dead were not infections, the government had medical officers in full PPE gear, bury people in plastic bags in scenes that were traumatic for viewers let alone the loved ones of the deceased.

In once especially memorable case, officers in full gear from head to toe buried a man in Siaya in a shallow grave, in a body bag, in the middle of the night with zero involvement from his family. This after senior officials had sent condolences and participated in the very public well-attended send-off of a Kenya Airways pilot who had succumbed to Covid-19. The parallels in the way ordinary people are treated versus those of higher social status were impossible to ignore.

Dusk To Dawn Curfew

To limit non-essential travel and movement, the government instituted dusk to dawn curfew that went into effect on March 28th, 2020. Initially, the curfew was from 7 p.m to 5 a.m but was later adjusted to 10 p.m to 4 a.m and remains so at the time of publication. Essential workers were exempted from the curfew and issued with documentation reflecting the exemption.

Police Brutality

Kenyans lying on the ground as a police man looks on enforcing the Covid-19 curfew - Ministry of Health & Govt. Guidelines
Kenyans lying on the ground as a police man looks on enforcing the Covid-19 curfew – Ministry of Health & Govt. Guidelines
Image from https://bit.ly/39YmN9x

Police would arrive sometimes even before the curfew began with tear gas and guns, shooting into the air and beating up people with canes, batons and rubber hoses in the name of enforcing the curfew. At least six people died within the first 10 days of enforcing the curfew and many more were injured. They also went on a looting spree, extorting Kenyans, making them kneel down or lie on the ground, and even breaking into people’s homes.

In a truly counterproductive move, after whipping people, they would herd them together or arrest them in groups, further raising their risk of infection in the name of protecting them from the pandemic. A thirteen-year-old boy, Yasin Moyo, was killed by a stray police bullet while standing on a balcony with his siblings watching the police violently enforce the curfew.

Public outcry eventually forced the government to address it with certain government officials coming out in support of the police. The president issued a statement talking out of both sides of his mouth in which he appeared to criticize the police while making no effort to officially demand an immediate cease and desist of violence on their part.

These measures especially, the curfew and lockdown were most felt by the poor working class. Reduced working hours meant reduced wages. Low-income neighbourhoods are also more likely to be the targets of police harassment and brutality than higher-income areas. By early April, the death toll from police brutality during enforcement of the new regulations had surpassed the official death count by Covid-19.

Forced Quarantine and Isolation

In the beginning, The Ministry of Health forcefully quarantined and isolated people who had been exposed to the virus or found positive. They also did this for travellers returning from overseas. This was also a directive most felt by low-income earners. People were forcefully held in isolation and quarantine centres and then required by the government to pay the full fee, regardless of their ability to raise the money. Their stay and unfairly increased if they didn’t pay up. This while upper-class people were allowed to isolate and self-quarantine at home.

The CS Ministry of Health then added that NHIF would not be covering the cost of treatment, terming it impractical for both public and private insurers to cover pandemics. This was a blow to the common mwanachi who pays NHIF and has no other insurance.

The forceful isolation and quarantine were determined to be illegal by the courts. The forced payments for the stay were also contested by Okiya Omtata in court and found to be unconstitutional and in contravention of The Public Health Act. The government was ordered to refund all the money it had taken from citizens as payment for their stay in the mandatory isolation centres.

Tax Relief

In recognition of the economic hardships being faced by most occasioned by job losses and business collapse, the government unveiled an economic stimulus package. Taxes were reduced to zero for people earning less than 24,000 KES per month. Those earning above that had their taxes cut to 25%, down from 30% Pay As You Earn (PAYE). Traders earning less than 50,000 KES annually had their taxes dropped to 1% from 5%. VAT on basic commodities such as maize flour and milk was dropped to 14% from 16%.

Generally, changes were far-reaching with all institutions being forced to implement changes. Schools were closed, so were dens of revelry including bars, clubs and restaurants. Hospitals demarcated certain areas to deal with Covid-19 related cases exclusively. People responded swiftly changing introducing masks into daily life, social distancing, maintaining the utmost in hygiene.

The government response while relatively quick was largely rooted in threats from the violent enforcement by police to the threat of mandatory isolation and quarantine by the CS, Ministry of Health if one was found outside past curfew hours. A threat that clearly did not apply to his son who was found in contravention of it. Strict protocols especially regarding testing have been implemented with the opening up of the borders and the resumption of air travel. The tax breaks were needless to say a much-needed reprieve for many an average Kenyan. It’s safe to assume that the precautions introduced have helped keep the infection rate in Kenya low, which is a great positive.

For more on Kenya’s Covid-19 response, here’s a piece on the social behaviour of Kenyans during the pandemicThe Impact Of Covid-19 Pandemic On Travel And Tourism In Kenya and another on the impact the pandemic has had on education in Kenya.

The New Normal: What Is Likely To Happen Post Coronavirus

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