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Rights activists warn Kenyan authorities exposing people to COVID-19 in ill-equipped quarantine facilities

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Kenyan authorities are potentially facilitating transmission of the Covid-19 virus while forcefully quarantining tens of thousands of people in facilities that lack proper sanitation, protective equipment and food, Human Rights Watch, Kenya Human Rights Commission, and Journalists for Justice said on Thursday.

The authorities have also held crowds of people in the arrivals area at the Nairobi airport for more than four hours with no social distancing, sanitizers, or masks; ferried people in packed buses with little ventilation; and, at the quarantine facilities, failed to enforce quarantine guidelines issued by the Health Ministry. The authorities also have forced people into quarantine for violating curfew or for not following orders to wear face masks.

“Kenyan authorities are exposing people to a risk of infection in poorly managed and ill-equipped quarantine facilities,” said Otsieno Namwaya, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Despite credible accounts of people with traumatizing experiences in forced quarantine, conditions have not improved.”

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Between mid-April and mid-May, researchers spoke to a total of 26 people, including 22 people in 11 quarantine facilities across the country – among them the Kenya School of Government and Kenya Medical Training Institute in Nairobi – as well as three front line doctors and a senior nurse. Those forced to quarantine were incoming travelers, people who had contacts with travelers, and, in some cases, people who violated the curfew imposed on March 27 or orders to wear masks in public.

On March 15, 2020, President Uhuru Kenyatta announced the closure of all schools and colleges to curb the spread of the virus. On March 22, the health cabinet secretary, Mutahi Kagwe, banned international flights in and out of Kenya, except for cargo flights, and announced a mandatory 14-day quarantine for all incoming travelers and those who may have been in contact with them. However, the authorities did little to prepare facilities and staff on how to handle those in quarantine.

As of May 26, Kenyan authorities said they had quarantined and tested 64, 264 people. About 2 percent – 1,348 – tested positive for Covid-19, about 50 have died, and about 405 have recovered and been discharged. On May 4, the authorities said they had started mass testing in the capital, Nairobi, and in Mombasa’s old town, where residents were reluctant to present themselves for testing out of fear of being forcefully quarantined, media reported.

The authorities in Nairobi had earlier said that travelers at the airport could choose between paying to stay in a hotel or staying without charge in a government quarantine facility. Unlike in most other countries with a significant number of people in quarantine, in most cases people were not allowed to self-quarantine in private homes where feasible.

People interviewed described poor conditions of the quarantine facilities, including lack of bedding, water, food, and cleaning supplies, including soaps and detergents. They said they weren’t told of test results and that staff did not adhere to the government’s own protocols, such as wearing face masks or other protective equipment, to ensure that those quarantined do not become exposed to the virus.

A 22-year-old man who was quarantined at the Kenya Industrial Training Institute (KITI), in Nakuru, Rift Valley, following his arrival from France on March 23 said: “When I checked in, I found there was no electricity, no bathing water, no food and no water to drink. The beds had no mattresses or beddings. I slept on the spring bed with no mattress and nothing to cover myself. They told me I had to pay for water.”

On May 14, Human Rights Watch, Kenya Human Rights Commission, and Journalists for Justice wrote to the health cabinet secretary, Mutahi Kagwe, requesting information on the abuses in quarantine centers, and the government’s response to the complaints of those in quarantine, conditions in the facilities and the issue of payment for quarantine. Secretary Kagwe has not responded.

“It is disturbing that people who arrived from abroad are herded straight into these facilities without considerable thought being given to the wellbeing of those sent to these facilities,” said Kwamchetsi Makokha, program adviser at Journalists for Justice, a Nairobi based organization. “It is even more shocking that some people have stayed in quarantine for periods of up to 30 days, well beyond the official 14-day period, because they were unable to pay.”

Among those forced into quarantine for breaching the Covid-19 curfew was Carolyne Akumu, a 35-year-old mother, together with her month-old child. Akumu, said that Busia county officers arrested her on May 1 as she rushed home at 7:10 p.m., 10 minutes after the curfew time. Police forced her to go to what she described as a derelict and dusty quarantine facility in Nambale, 40 kilometers from Busia, where she slept on a cold floor with nothing to cover herself and her child. Akumu said she tested negative the following day, and was released on the second day, following intervention by civil society groups.

The authorities should urgently take measures to improve conditions in public quarantine facilities, including regular cleaning and fumigation, change of bed linens, provision of meals in all facilities, and adequate psychosocial support and medical care where need be, Human Rights Watch, Kenya Human Rights Commission, and Journalists for Justice said.

In addition, the authorities should ensure adequate care and access to communication, including in accessible formats, with the outside world for those in quarantine, and waive fees associated with quarantine and related medical care for those who cannot afford them. Individuals should be assessed for self-quarantine, provided that they are able to maintain social distancing and proper support from a caregiver.

Under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which Kenya ratified in 1972, everyone has the right to “the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.” Governments are obligated to take effective steps for the “prevention, treatment and control of epidemic, endemic, occupational and other diseases.” However, any restrictions they impose for reasons of public health or national emergency need to be lawful, necessary, and proportionate and be carried out in accordance with the law. They cannot be imposed in an arbitrary or discriminatory manner.

“President Kenyatta should demonstrate to the world that Kenya can implement its quarantine policy in a humane and accountable manner,” said George Kegoro, executive director at Kenya Human Rights Commission. “The president should ensure that government meets all quarantine-related costs, as cabinet secretary for health Mutahi Kagwe promised on May 6.”

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