Kenya: Double Tragedy as COVID-19 Patients Hit With Huge Bills

Treasury CS Ukur Yatani (centre) with Kenya National Bureau of Statistics Director-General Zachary Mwangi (right) and State Department for Planning Principal Secretary Saitoti Torome during the launch of the 2020 Economic Survey at the Treasury.

When the government learns that you have come into contact with an individual who has tested positive for coronavirus, it dispatches a team in hazmat suits, masks and protective gumboots to your home to pick you and your entire household up for mandatory quarantine and testing.

The strategy, known as contact tracing, has been credited for the relatively low numbers of confirmed cases of infected people in the country as it reduces the spread of the disease in the wider community.

Should the tests find you positive, the government transfers you to a hospital where you are observed and any symptoms managed, until you recover, before releasing you back into society. But not before you are slapped with a hefty bill imposed on you by the global pandemic, and over which you have absolutely no control.

This is how Ms Irene Akinyi, 48, has found herself staring at a Sh168,000 bill or more, after she was picked up from her house in Mombasa's Mtopanga estate on Saturday, together with her three daughters, a house help and her eight-month-old grandson, and taken to a quarantine facility.

She is required to pay Sh2,000 per day for each of the family members.

Her only mistake is that she inadvertently came into contact with her children's father, who had dropped in to check on them.

After testing positive for the virus, the man told health authorities about his visit to the family house and they were all rounded up.

Ms Akinyi turned to social media and the church for help to pay a part of her bill, and says she does not have money to pay the rest.

Her story is repeated in tens of quarantine centres and government hospitals, with hundreds of Kenyans held there pleading with the government to use some of the cash set aside to fight the coronavirus to meet these costs.

However, the government would hear none of it.

On Tuesday, the Health ministry said it would continue charging for quarantine despite the public uproar. "The testing and the treatment are borne by the government, but it is the responsibility of Kenyans to take care of their bills when they are in quarantine," said Health Chief Administrative Secretary (CAS) Dr Rashid Aman during a media briefing on state of Covid-19 in Kenya.

On Monday, a 22-year-old man attempted suicide at the Kenyatta University Teaching, Research and Referral Hospital (KUTRRH) after what he said was a bloated bill at the quarantine ward.

Mr Samuel Osore, the patient in the video, yesterday told the Nation he snapped and thought of committing suicide as a way out of his more than Sh55,000 bill.

"I cannot leave this place, I am told to sell my land and the nurses are even threatening," he shouted to onlookers who were beseeching him not to do the unthinkable.

"Why should I stay in here; I am tired of being frustrated. At home my mother is physically challenged and we have nothing. I want to leave this place."

Mr Osore tribulations mirror the pain of hundreds of Kenyans who have been slapped with bills of tens and hundreds of thousands of shillings after spending at least 14 days at public isolation centres run by the government.

The victims are being held at public hospitals, Kenya Medical Training Colleges, Kenya School of Government, public schools, technical training centres and universities, among other State-run facilities.

While there are those being punished for breaching quarantine rules, a big number of those stuck in the facilities for failing to clear bills are poor men, women and children taken in after being suspected to have come in contact with Covid-19 patients.

They were taken into isolation through contact tracing and locked up at State-run centres even though there is the option of self-quarantine at their homes.

Mr Osore, who had lost his job at a hotel in town, was taken to Kenyatta National Hospital by a close friend after showing Covid-19-like symptoms.

Later, he was moved to Mbagathi Hospital where he undertook a coronavirus test that turned out negative.

He said he was not discharged at this point and was instead transferred to the Kenyatta University Hospital which has attended to 288 patients since it was categorised as a Covid-19 management centre.

"When I came to this hospital, I was told that I do not have coronavirus, but tuberculosis. However, I have not been treated for anything yet I have been here for a while, with charges going up daily," he said.

The hospital yesterday blamed Mr Osore for the drama, saying they were only effecting a government policy requiring suspected Covid-19 patients to pay for their stay.

"The one of yesterday (Mr Osore) had declared that he would not pay so he had to find a way of whipping up public emotions," said Dr Wekesa Masasabi, the KUTRRH CEO. "We have since calmed all of them and allowed those who have tested negative twice (including Mr Osore) to leave."

In Nyeri, police have launched a manhunt for two quarantine escapees who left in a prison-break style.

Nyeri County Commissioner Lyford Kibaara yesterday said the two cut grills in their cubicles at the Wambugu Farm Training Centre.

The escape comes days after dozens of suspected Covid-19 patients escaped from the Kenya Medical Training College (KMTC) at Kenyatta National Hospital in Nairobi. So far, only a handful have been traced and arrested.

In Homa Bay, some families in quarantine said they are living in fear of being detained for failure to clear their bills.

This was after Health executive Richard Muga said all those who were quarantined will have to pay before being set free.

"There are guidelines on payment. Everyone who is at the facility will be charged because they were being taken care of by the government, including the provision of food," he said.

It has emerged that while those unable to pay are allowed to leave, they are required to commit to pay later.

Ms Sophia Kitui, who was discharged from KMTC in Nairobi, said their stress increased when they discovered that they would not be allowed to leave without clearing their bills.

"Those who were not able to leave were given contracts that they would leave a valuable like passports which they would take after they have cleared the bills," she said.

In Nyamira, those quarantined at Menyenya Secondary School in Borabu yesterday said the facility is in a deplorable state.

The families lack of basic items such as hand sanitisers, soap and mosquito nets. Women with children have been greatly affected as they need sanitary towels and diapers.

Meanwhile, in Siaya, the family of the county's first coronavirus death, who have been in quarantine at the KMTC, yesterday took the fourth test grudgingly.

The family of the late James Oyugi Onyango, led by the deceased's brother Zack Onyango, said the health team should have allowed them to go home as promised earlier.

Mr Zack Onyango said they were to be released yesterday if the results turned out negative.

"We have been here for 17 days," he said. "We have been tested three times which have all turned out negative. Why are they keen to hold us here longer?" he posed.

Reporting by Nasibo Kabale, Hellen Shikanda, Aggrey Omboki, Dickens Wasonga, George Odiwuor, Wycliffe Nyaberi, Irene Mugo and Verah Okeyo

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