Kenya

Foreigners feel the heat of Kenya's coronavirus fears

Kenyan health officials after cleaning up the area found a man infected with Coronavirus in Rongai, a suburb of Nairobi.14/3/2020.
Kenyan health officials after cleaning up the area found a man infected with Coronavirus in Rongai, a suburb of Nairobi.14/3/2020. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

Kenya has unveiled tough measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus, following the identification of the country's first case on Friday. While working in Nairobi over the past fortnight, RFI's David Coffey noticed a palpable sense of apprehension on the streets, with a generous dose of xenophobia, as the country braced for the Covid-19 wave to crash on its shores.

Advertising

Having been asked to assist with the move of RFI’s Kiswahili service to Nairobi at the beginning of this month, I was looking forward to finding myself in a familiar environment, having lived in neighbouring Tanzania for the best part of four years.

It was a great opportunity to catch up with old colleagues from the Dar es Salaam days, to meet the new additions to the RFI Kiswahili team, and help with their induction into their new working environment. Although Covid-19 had yet to land on Kenyan soil, Virusi vya Korona was all over the news.

The atmosphere on the streets of downtown Nairobi was subdued. Anxiety seemed to permeate the capital’s Central Business District. People would invite me to step ahead of them into an elevator, then remain behind, leaving me to continue upwards on my own.

RFI journalists at Nairobi's Nation Centre building
RFI journalists at Nairobi's Nation Centre building © David Coffey

As the days progressed, and my daily routine saw me taking many a solitary lift to and from our temporary offices at the Nation Centre, social distancing became the norm within the building, handshakes disappeared and large bottles of hand sanitiser materialised on almost every desk.

Nothing had been officially implemented, it just evolved that way incrementally. The upkeep of staircases and handrails, spotless at the best of times, mutated into a state of constant sanitary maintenance.

The Twin Tower Nation Media Centre (left) in Nairobi"s Central Business District
The Twin Tower Nation Media Centre (left) in Nairobi"s Central Business District © David Coffey

Nairobi was preparing for the worst, as the full lock-down of Italy hit the headlines. As a mzungu (Swahili for European) on the streets of the Kenyan capital, one is used to being approached by hawkers, taxi drivers and kids asking for coins. By the middle of last week, all that had come to a halt.

Coronavirus reality makes it to MoJo's

In a local bar - MoJo’s - just a stone’s throw from Kenyatta Avenue, regulars would rise from their tables, mumbling “corona” as they resettled at a safe distance from the foreigner, me.

“Are you from Italy?” shouted a woman from her barstool. “You’re not from Italy, are you?” All ears appeared to prick up as I replied in the negative. One could view the reaction as understandable, reasonable even, given the reach of the outbreak and the draconian measures that have still failed to contain Covid-19.

Yet it was curious to feel stigmatised in a city I know so well.

As with the subtle evolution of precautionary measures that crept into our daily lives at the office - the purchase of extra sanitisers and the sourcing of protective masks - I found myself essentially self-isolating at my hotel after work, as the Nairobi streets became less and less welcoming.

Kenyan government advisory on combatting the spread of CoVid-19
Kenyan government advisory on combatting the spread of CoVid-19 © David Coffey

Once the cancellation of flights to Europe hit the headlines across the Kenyan media, it was time to make a decision. In view of the insidious nature of Covid-19, once Italy went into quarantine, it was only a matter of time before France would follow suit. I had to roll the dice and decide between sticking it out in Kenya, where the virus had yet to strike, or getting back to Paris ahead of border closures, flight cancellations and the inevitable lockdown.                 

When the first confirmed case of Covid-19 was declared in a suburb of Nairobi last Friday, the writing was on the wall. Get home now, or face a month in quarantine in a downtown hotel room. It was an abrupt end to an assignment that had me working and training with excellent colleagues, both old and new, but I sensed the tense mood outside the RFI newsroom could swing in any direction on the street. With a heavy heart, I got the next flight back to Paris.

Virus threat: A lab technician gears up for visiting a quarantine ward at the Kenyatta National Hospital in Nairobi
Virus threat: A lab technician gears up for visiting a quarantine ward at the Kenyatta National Hospital in Nairobi AFP

Kenyatta closes the doors

And so it was. In an address to the nation on Sunday, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta said two people who had come into contact with a 27-year-old Kenyan patient "have tested positive" and been moved into an isolation facility.

That figure has now risen to at least 5.

Travel has been suspended for anyone wishing to enter Kenya from any country with reported coronavirus cases. Only Kenyans and foreigners with valid resident permits will be allowed into the country, on condition they self-quarantine. Every foreigner who has entered the country in the past 14 days has now been ordered into isolation.

As of the beginning of this week, all schools are closed, with boarding schools and universities to shut before the weekend. Companies are being urged to allow their employees to work from home.

No run on the aisles just yet...
No run on the aisles just yet... © David Coffey

In the wake of the measures being implemented, the inevitable rush on supermarkets began, with shoppers piling trolleys with wipes, sanitiser, and staples like rice and long-life milk.                                                 

Tusky's, a Kenyan supermarket chain, urged customers not to panic and this week launched a home delivery service. The Kenyan government has stepped in to try and curb price rises.

Although African countries have been among the last to be hit by the global pandemic, the continent is plagued by weak health systems and a shortage of doctors and hospital beds.

Site crash... leading to a lack of information on CoVid-19
Site crash... leading to a lack of information on CoVid-19 © David Coffey

Africa's advantage against infectious diseases

However, many African countries do have first-hand, top-level expertise in fighting contagious diseases. The World Bank has committed $60 million to Kenya to help the nation battle the outbreak, specifically to improve surveillance, provide laboratory tests, isolation units and public information.

And indeed, it is this last point that has proven so crucial in the containment (or at least mitigation) of the coronavirus. As West African countries and the DRC have learned from Ebola, stigmatisation and misinformation cost lives. And once the right approach and information are advanced in countries such as Kenya, as the disease takes hold, it becomes clear to everyone that the infection does not discriminate between race, class, colour or creed.

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning