COVID-19 is bringing to the fore, once again, how differently the East African states of Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda tackle the problems confronting their people.
Kenya is effectively in some sort of lock-down. There is a curfew from 7pm and this is enforced, rather violently by the police force. Coincidentally, the new Minister of Health was appointed just in time for this crisis. This docket has been dogged by massive corruption in the past.
Kenya has failed to come to the rescue of Kenyans stuck in places like China and very weak border control was witnessed until late in the crisis. Flights from China were still coming into Nairobi as late as 26th February and the government offered a half-baked justification when the last flight raised uproar on social media.
All 239 passengers were screened onboard, cleared and advised to self-quarantine for the next 14 days
How the government was enforcing “self-quarantine” remains a mystery.
As always, the media can be expected to do everything except hold the government to account. Instead, on Easter Sunday, one of the leading dailies, the Daily Nation, saw it fit to remind Kenyans of the long running tiff between President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy, William Ruto. The headline, “Ruto Edged Out in Battle for Jubilee Party” completely missed what was keeping all Kenyans awake.
A stampede occurred in Kibera slum as thousands of people scrambled for food that had been donated by a well-wisher. This further shows the sore need for government to provide ways of people to access food during this lockdown. One would expect that beyond scolding Kenyans who do not stay in their houses as much as they should, the government should be aware that there are Kenyans who cannot eat unless they go out every day and engage in some sort of manual labour or other.
People arriving in the country are quarantined. There has been complaints with regard to the quality of the quarantine facilities managed by the government. This report quotes some of the quarantined individuals claiming 30 individuals have to share 3 toilets and 3 bathrooms – some of the sanitation facilities are faulty. With such crowding, the danger of turning quarantine facilities into infection hotspots is real. Those who opt to stay in hotels are supposed to meet their bills and there has been some controversy about this, especially after the initial quarantine period at some facilities was extended.
In mid-March, Museveni had urged Ugandans to stay at home but stopped short of ordering a total lockdown. There were restrictions on transport and as expected, police brutality was witnessed in enforcing the restrictions on movement. Two men were shot by police for violating restrictions on transport. On 30th March, President Museveni finally announced 14 days of lockdown.
The president was also featured in the media showing his country men how they can exercise indoors in order to keep fit. He was seen jogging in a spacious and tastefully furnished room in Statehouse and also doing some 30 (poor quality) pushups. His handlers could have informed him that the space he was was using for his indoor exercise typically fits 30 housing units in Katanga slum. Of course most of the people “wandering” the streets instead of staying safe in their houses are actually engaging in whatever economic activities they can find, to feed their families – counting calories is the least of their concerns.
Rwanda was the first African country to order a total lockdown on 21st March. President Paul Kagame took measures early and he has sustained them, leveraging on technology where possible. Rwanda is using drones to broadcast health messages. Not to depart from Kagame’s usual high-handedness, the police shot two people who broke curfew rules early on. The police spokesperson claimed the two men engaged in a tussle with police officers.
Social protection in Rwanda appears to be much better coordinated. The lockdown is to run until April 19th and the government has set up food distribution centres. Some hotels are designated as quarantine areas and the government picks the tab for the people in quarantine. To avoid crowding, for the first time in history, Rwandans had to commemorate the 1994 genocide indoors.
President Magufuli of Tanzania is charting an entirely different course. He declared that there would be no shutdown because 8 countries depend on Tanzania and if he closed the borders, those countries would be in problems. Tanzania only announced cessation of flights on 12th April. In a short clip that was widely circulated on Twitter, the Minister for Health, Ummy Mwalimu actually chuckled as she admitted Tanzania was unprepared for COVID-19.
As he prepares for reelection in 2020, Magufuli seems to be attempting all tricks to ingratiate himself to the voters. He has declared that churches and mosques would remain open ostensibly to cast the image of a devout leader who places God first. Attending church, he declared church services would continue because COVID-19 cannot survive in the body of Jesus Christ.
These Holy places are where God is. My fellow Tanzanians, let us not be afraid of going to praise HimPresident Magufuli
There is no doubt that freedom of worship is important and all people who practise one faith or the other will have deeply personal attachment to their religion. However, experience in other countries has shown the need to exercise caution, for example social distancing, even in places of worship. In some countries, gatherings in places of worship have been replaced with streaming services or meetings outdoor with appropriate distance. To advise people to continue mass gatherings is hardly responsible.
Magufuli’s government has been talking at cross-purposes and sometimes the statistics provided by one office (ministry of health) do not tally with the statistics provided by another (government spokesperson). No clear view exists as to the amount of testing being carried out.
When all is said and done, East Africa has very porous borders. If one neighbour is taking such a casual approach in fighting this scourge, the neighbouring countries will suffer just as much. This is hardly the time for lone ranger tactics.
The common theme of delayed response, police brutality in enforcing lockdowns and a leadership that is not in tune with the needs of the citizenry runs across East Africa. A regional (harmonised) approach that coordinates the fight against COVID-19 is lacking. Tanzania, as usual, is charting its own course and will neither consult nor cooperate.