Kenya needs to stop panicking and start preparing for coronavirus

We should stop wasting time trying to stop the virus from entering Kenya and start preparing for the outbreak instead.

China Southern airlines for Kenya op-ed photo Reuters
Authorities suspended all flights from China and ordered 239 passengers who arrived in Kenya in a CSA flight on February 26 to be quarantined in a military facility [Regis Duvignau/Reuters]

Kenyans are a worried lot. As the coronavirus outbreak continues to spread across the globe, there are increasing questions being raised about the measures – or more accurately, the lack of measures – the government is taking to protect the population.

By the beginning of March, coronavirus infections had been confirmed in at least 55 countries, including three on the African continent – Algeria, Egypt and Nigeria. While so far the continent has been spared a major outbreak, there have been dire predictions of the havoc the virus could wreak. In February, Microsoft founder Bill Gates warned that the coronavirus disease, known as COVID-19 officially, could overwhelm already creaking health systems and claim up to 10 million lives.

Despite numerous false alarms, there is thankfully yet to be a confirmed case of the virus in Kenya. However, a sense of panic has been building, fed largely by a perception that the government has been slow in enacting measures to prevent the virus getting into the country as well as by a dearth of public information on what to expect once its presence has been confirmed. It was not until last week that the country established a National Emergency Response Committee to “prevent, respond to and contain this emerging global threat”. 

Much of the concern has centred on the continuation of flights arriving from China whose Hubei province is the epicentre of the outbreak. At the end of January, the national carrier, Kenya Airways, reluctantly suspended flights to and from Guangzhou, one of its most lucrative routes, following public pressure, including from unions.

However, the government’s decision to allow a China Southern Airlines (CSA) plane carrying 239 passengers to land at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport on February 26 caused uproar despite assurances that the passengers had been “screened on board, cleared and advised to self-quarantine for the next 14 days”.

The Law Society of Kenya went to court and obtained orders suspending all flights from China and requiring that the passengers of last week’s CSA flight be rounded up and detained at a military or specially guarded medical facility until they are certified to be free of the virus.

However, focusing exclusively on measures to prevent COVID-19 reaching Kenya is problematic. 

Dr Ouma Oluga, who heads the Kenya Medical Practitioners and Dentists Union, this week told the popular Sunday show, Punchline, that travel bans were counterproductive and ineffective. They incentivise countries not to declare cases for fear of economic repercussions and, given the global spread of the virus, restrictions on travel from one country could not guarantee that the virus would not arrive from elsewhere. Oluga cited the case in Nigeria, which originated in Italy, as an example of this. 

This is not to say that travel restrictions and other measures to contain the virus and stop it spreading, such as tracking and quarantining those infected, are not important. As both WHO officials and Professor Benjamin Cowling of the School of Public Health at the University of Hong Kong have noted, such measures, while not necessarily stopping the virus, do slow it down and give countries time to prepare. And this is where Kenya is failing.

As public angst and government efforts concentrate on trying to prevent COVID-19 getting to Kenya, little attention is being paid towards preparing the health system and the public. As Dr Oluga pointed out, the government is yet to disseminate materials from the WHO to help prepare health workers to deal with the virus and, so far, most have not received “any training at all on dealing with dangerous pathogens”.

A 2013 survey of the health system found that only 2 percent of medical facilities in the country were “providing all services required to eliminate communicable conditions”. And there is little sign that this has improved. A study published in the Lancet journal in February noted that while Kenya had a moderate risk of importing the virus from China, it had amongst the lowest scores on the continent for the capacity to handle an outbreak. “Resources, intensified surveillance, and capacity building should be urgently prioritized in countries [like Kenya] with moderate risk that might be ill-prepared to detect imported cases and to limit onward transmission,” it concluded.

The lack of a public information campaign to educate people on what to expect and how to protect themselves is feeding the growing panic and fuelling anti-Chinese sentiment which was already on the rise over allegations of racism and fears of economic exploitation.

Public ignorance is reflected in statements such as that from a former vice president who recently attributed the fact that no African had been diagnosed with the virus to strong genes.

At the other end of the spectrum, doomsday scenarios being propagated on social media take little account of the fact that most of those who catch the virus experience only mild symptoms and that the overwhelming majority of deaths from the coronavirus have been among those aged 50 and above, a demographic that accounts for less than 11 percent of Kenya’s population. Further, information on how to prevent infection, for example by regularly washing hands and practising good respiratory hygiene, can and should be easily disseminated and would help calm jittery nerves. However, instead of focusing on providing accurate and timely information to correct false narratives, the government is now threatening to prosecute people making statements it considers “malicious and alarmist,” a move that will do little to convince already sceptical Kenyans.

None of this is meant to suggest that COVID-19 should not be taken seriously or that measures to prevent infected people getting into the country should be discontinued. However, rather than placing all its hopes on stopping the virus at the border, Kenya’s efforts should now be geared towards preparing for its eventual arrival. Like much of the rest of the world, it has a window of opportunity to do this. But it is a window that is rapidly closing.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.