Kenya has so far had the most cases and fatalities in East Africa. It was among the first in Africa to impose a lockdown but beatings, some fatal, and harassment by security forces have left the population more fearful about the authorities than the disease. Report by Tom Collins.
Three weeks after Kenya announced its first Covid-19 case on 13 March, the government moved to make face masks mandatory in public places, among other preventive health measures.
In a matter of days, local manufacturing companies had pivoted to mass produce the protective gear and Kenya’s 54m inhabitants were kitted with bright and colourful face masks bearing mostly African designs. Celebrities and models were soon photographed sporting designer face masks and the add-on to everyday day life has been adopted without complication.
Kenya was one of the first African countries to introduce the measure on 4 April, followed by more than 15 others including Burkina Faso, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Ethiopia. More then 50 governments across the world have introduced the measure, notwithstanding a notable lack of adoption by countries with the highest death rates, including the US and the UK.
Although health experts differ on the masks’ effectiveness in combating Covid-19, it stands to reason that they will help prevent the spread of an infectious disease.
Strict measures imposed
In other areas, Kenya – along with many African countries – made key interventions at the very outbreak of the virus which may yet spare it some of the devastation witnessed in North America and Europe.
Only two days after the first case was announced, President Uhuru Kenyatta banned international travel, suspended learning institutions and asked those able to work from home to do so. Salons, restaurants and bars were some of the first businesses closed as the government implemented strict social distancing and anti-gathering guidelines.
As the number of infections rose steadily, a partial lockdown was introduced, including a nationwide dusk-to-dawn curfew and a ban on movement in and out of Nairobi, Mombasa, Kwale and Kilifi – the four counties worst hit by the deadly virus.
As of 19 May, Kenya had 963 cases with 50 deaths. It has the most cases in East Africa – although concerns mount over unreported cases in neighbouring Tanzania – and is 16th on the list for the entire continent.
Bucking the trend in Africa, Kenya decided in mid-May to prolong its lockdown by a further 21 days, to 6 June.
“I know there is growing pressure to ease the measures put in place for all of us to get back to normal. Other countries eased their measures and later suffered as they witnessed a spike in the rate of infections,” Kenyatta said on 16 April, addressing the nation.
Ghana was the first African country to ease restrictions, citing economic ruin otherwise, for a population with 90% of its citizens working in the informal sector. South Africa, Rwanda and Nigeria, among others, have tentatively followed suit.
According to government statistics, 83% of Kenya’s population makes a living in the informal sector. Governments are torn between minimising the spread of the deadly virus, and preventing economic hardship that may cause even more deaths in the context of lower-income countries, experts have warned.
Elsewhere, the US and many European countries are easing restrictions, though cautionary tales from Singapore and South Korea warn of the dangers of a ‘second wave’ of infections.
Ghana has seen a fivefold increase in positive cases since it lifted its lockdown on 20 April.
More testing needed
Kenya has underperformed in the number of tests conducted, compared to Africa’s leading testers.
Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe said that Kenya is currently conducting an average of 600 tests per day and it has trained 100,000 healthcare workers to fight Covid-19, none of whom have succumbed to the virus.
This brings the total number of tests to almost 44,000 as of 17 May. The two leading testers in Africa, South Africa and Ghana, have conducted 461,000 and 160,000 tests respectively. Kenya has blamed its failure on supply chain issues like the lack of nasal swabs to take human samples, while its critics believe the delay is costing lives.
“You cannot fight a fire blindfolded. We cannot stop this pandemic if we don’t know who is infected,” said World Health Organisation Director General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
While the government has introduced a raft of measures to combat the virus, the heavy-handed enforcement of these measures has cast a long shadow over any positive steps taken.
Prior to the implementation of the 7pm to 5am curfew on 27 March, security forces fanned out in urban centres like Nairobi and Mombasa to crack down on any commuter caught out by the new directive. What followed was a night of beatings and harassment as the police and the army used the occasion to brutalise the population.
Scenes from Mombasa’s Likoni Ferry showed the police using sticks and gunshots to violently disperse a crowd waiting to use the ferry system to cross over to the mainland, where many who work in the city live.
The Washington Post reported that on the fourth night of the curfew, Kenyan police accidentally killed a 13-year-old boy named Yassin Hussein Moyo, who was standing on his balcony when he was hit by a ricocheting bullet from indiscriminate fire in the neighbourhood below. On 16 April, the same paper reported that Kenyan police had killed at least 12 people: more than Covid-19 at the time.
Kenyans live in fear of being caught out past the curfew, when heavily-armed police and the army take to the streets to harass and extort money from any unlucky traveller who is stopped by the blockades.
Charles Warria, chief operations and learning officer at iGov Africa, told a webinar panel hosted by the Kenyan publication The Elephant that the security forces have failed to differentiate their response from that to the 2007-2008 election violence, which posed a fundamentally different existential threat.
“We are not in a state of emergency, there is absolutely no need to deploy all manner of society apparatus to block the roads,” he said. “We are in a state of emergency response.”
Elsewhere, citizens fear being taken to one of the government’s infamous quarantine facilities, where people are forced to live in squalid conditions and must pay exorbitant fees before being released.
The New York Times reported that despite testing negative for Covid-19 on three separate occasions, Valentine Ochogo was held for a further 32-days after her initial 14-day quarantine period until she paid $434 in fees. She was eventually freed after managing to reduce the payment to $65. “I got really lucky,” she said.