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Kenya Criticized For Letting China Flights Land Amid Coronavirus Scare

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Five African countries have now reported cases of the coronavirus. Yesterday, Senegal announced that a man came back infected after a ski vacation in France. In Nigeria, it was an Italian flying in for work who tested positive. In East Africa, Kenya has reported no cases yet, but there are concerns there over how little that country seems prepared for an outbreak. NPR's Eyder Peralta reports.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: An airline employee was the first to raise an alarm with this video posted online.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED AIRLINE EMPLOYEE: This is today, 26 of February. So China Southern is back again.

PERALTA: It shows an arriving China Southern airplane with more than 200 passengers taxiing to its gate at Nairobi's main international airport. The video unleashed a torrent of public criticism. In huge font on the front page of The Standard, one of the big newspapers here, editors branded the government officials who allowed that flight in, quote, "enemies of the people." The Law Society of Kenya took the government to court.

DUDLEY OCHIEL: It was filed not just because a flight was allowed in but also because there was a complete lack of action by the government.

PERALTA: That's Dudley Ochiel, one of the attorneys on the case. He says, when they looked at what steps the government had taken to prepare for the arrival of the new coronavirus, they were shocked.

OCHIEL: There was no information on symptoms, on where to go for help, on numbers to call to report suspected cases, no isolation wards, no quarantine facilities. There was just no plan.

PERALTA: The court ordered direct flights from China suspended, and it asked the government to actually prepare and present a contingency plan. Soon after, President Uhuru Kenyatta announced a 21-member task force.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT UHURU KENYATTA: There is a executive order which I expect you to begin implementing immediately so that we can ensure our people generally are safe.

PERALTA: Health officials have warned that an epidemic on the African continent could be much deadlier than in China because hospitals here are ill-prepared to handle the most severe cases.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Unintelligible).

PERALTA: At Uhuru Park, in the middle of downtown Nairobi, I find two friends protesting the government response to coronavirus. They're wearing latex gloves and homemade masks. They had to make their own using paper towels, staples and rubber bands because there is now a shortage in Nairobi.

Musungo Gabbar (ph) says the government doesn't care about them.

MUSUNGO GABBAR: If I thought it was a caring government, they could have had even civic education so that people can understand what is coronavirus.

PERALTA: And perhaps to make that point, I find 20-year-old Lorna Serimitin Tutu (ph) out for a stroll with a friend. I ask them what they know about COVID-19.

LORNA SERIMITIN TUTU: We hear that it is killing people (laughter). There's no cure.

PERALTA: Do you guys know the symptoms of it?

SERIMITIN TUTU: No.

PERALTA: No?

SERIMITIN TUTU: I don't know. But I heard there's diarrhea. Maybe there is headache.

PERALTA: I ask if she trusts that Kenya has this under control.

SERIMITIN TUTU: Yes - because when I say that I don't trust them, who am I going to just? Whom?

PERALTA: She says her best hope is that the virus never gets here. This region already has enough problems, from locusts to Ebola. The new coronavirus, she says, would be yet another way to die.

Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Nairobi.

(SOUNDBITE OF PORTICO QUARTET'S "SIGNALS IN THE DUSK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.