Kenya: We Cannot Police Ourselves Out of the Pandemic

Police at a scene of crime.

From early on, the government treated COVID-19 as a law enforcement rather than public health issue. It has a long way to go to rebuild trust.

After recording its first case COVD-19 on 13 March, Kenya could have taken one of two options. The first was to treat the introduction of the highly infectious disease as a public health crisis. This would have involved rapidly increasing testing, educating people on how to reduce the risk of transmission, and diverting resources to facilitate this new behaviour.

Instead, the Kenyan government followed a different approach. Rather than seeing the coronavirus as a public health challenge, much of its response suggests that it understood it primarily as a law enforcement matter. In this frame, the enemy was not the virus but the "undisciplined citizen".

This could be seen from the early on in the interventions. On 25 March, President Uhuru Kenyatta announced a nationwide curfew from 7pm to 5 am. Two days later, when the curfew took effect, police brutalised citizens as they tried to make their way home. Evidently, they saw their job to be "enforcing the law" rather than "facilitating compliance". The case of Amina Mutio, a female police officer pictured helping vulnerable people get home, was the exception that proved the rule.

Following this violence, President Kenyatta apologised and the government appealed to employers to let workers leave work by 4pm. Despite this, the heavy-handed approach continued. The police have injured many Kenyan citizens and have reportedly killed at least six people while enforcing the lockdown, including 13-year-old Yassin Hussein Moyo. Two men are also reported to have died as they ran from police to avoid arrest for not wearing masks: one jumped off a bridge; the other jumped into a pond and drowned.

The government's attitude is also apparent from its communications. In its official briefings, it has often made supposed rule-breakers the focus of its announcements. Senior officials, led by the president, have repeatedly castigated people for their "indiscipline", implicitly blaming the continued spread of the virus on individual citizens rather than the government's mishandling of the crisis.

At one point the government's health and law enforcement measures became intertwined in a particularly counter-productive way. To compel people to abide by the lockdown, the government said that those found contravening the measures would be assumed to have interacted with infected persons and be sent to state quarantine centres for 14 days for which they would have to foot the bill themselves. Quarantine went from being a public health imperative to a punishment.

Furthermore, this policy may have even contributed to the spread of COVID-19. Some people are believed to have become infected at the centres, while some inmates escaped, potentially spreading the disease to surrounding communities. The government has acknowledged that it cannot trace many people who have tested positive.

Rebuilding trust

Fortunately, the Kenyan government has shifted its approach more recently and has focused on public health measures. Crucially, it has increased testing, though it still lags well behind the likes of South Africa and Ghana. More testing will enable more informed and targeted measures. For instance, it has now allowed eateries to reopen on condition that they test staff regularly and permitted truck drivers from Somalia and Tanzania to enter Kenya only if they test negative.

Unfortunately, this change of focus has not always gone as far as necessary. When the government rolled out mass testing in areas believed to be highly affected in early-May, for example, many people were reluctant to cooperate due to fear of the high costs they would have to pay if they were found positive and then placed in mandatory quarantine. By the time the government announced it was waiving the fees, the damage had been done.

Even now, as the government appeals to people to undergo voluntary testing, many are afraid they may be forced to stay in - and possibly subject their families - to the poor conditions in quarantine facilities. This may explain why many COVID-19 deaths in Kenya are occurring at home.

At the time of writing, Kenya has recorded 2,093 cases and 71 deaths. The number of cases continues to rise and officials project that the outbreak will peak in August or September. If the government is to be successful in reducing the number of deaths and the damage caused by the pandemic, it will need to intensify its public health measures. But to do this, it will first need to rebuild the trust with citizens that it lost through its early actions.

The government will need to demonstrate a commitment to fighting the virus with the people, rather than fighting the people. Renewing this sense of legitimacy will take time and may require the government to partner with, and listen to, the civil society organisations and mutual aid groups that have built trust with citizens over the last few months, as the government has lost it. If the police are to have a role, meanwhile, it will be to facilitate public health efforts. After all, what we have learnt so far is that we cannot police ourselves out of a pandemic.

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