Coronavirus: Evacuating Kenyans stuck in China the better option

A man wears a mask and goggles as he commutes in a Beijing street
A man wears a mask and goggles as he commutes in a Beijing street as a protection against the outbreak. Coronavirus has killed more than 1,000 people. PHOTO | AFP 

As countries scrambled to evacuate their nationals from China in the wake of the outbreak of the new coronavirus, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen declared that the country would not take home its students and diplomats.

“We decided not to evacuate Cambodian students. Evacuating them would probably bring an end to opportunities for Cambodians to study there. China would stop offering scholarships. We are keeping (Cambodian students) there to share (Chinese people’s) happiness and pain and to help them solve this situation,” he said, describing the posture as “soft diplomacy.” “We cannot be there when things are good but run away when trouble comes,” he added.

Kenya is yet to decide on whether or not to bring home the nearly 100 students marooned in Wuhan, the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak. For weeks, Kenyan students in Wuhan have been desperately pleading to be brought home, narrating the harrowing experiences — from running short of essential supplies to some beginning to fall into depression, worrying about the possibilities of contracting the disease that has killed more than 1,000 people by yesterday and infected more than 31,000, with most of the victims from mainland China. Through their lobby group, Kenyan Students in Wuhan Association, the students wrote to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs seeking urgent intervention. “To date, the embassy has not responded to our letter nor the raised concerns. We are in total darkness. Worse of it all, with each passing day the situation in Wuhan is getting unbearable. Some of our students are totally without food, while some are going into depression due to fear and uncertainty surrounding this issue,” the letter said. Earlier, the students had written to Kenya's ambassador to China Sarah Serem who ended her response with a prayer to God to keep them safe. While President Uhuru Kenyatta had stated, while on a tour of the US last week, that Kenyan students who want to come home will be repatriated, a multi-agency team in Nairobi held a different view, insisting that it was in their best interests to remain in there.

Foreign Affairs Principal Secretary Macharia Kamau claimed Kenya is ill-prepared to handle a coronavirus outbreak in the homeland and that the students are better off there as China is doing everything to contain the spread. He further argues that the spread of the virus to other countries is as a result of evacuation efforts, hence the reason Kenya wants to avoid such challenges. There has also been the argument that any evacuation will have to await the lifting of the quarantine imposed by Chinese authorities but whose end is not in sight.



Granted, it is only recently that the government has moved to expand capacity to handle the novel disease by establishing an additional 120-bed isolation centre at the new wing of Mbagathi Hospital in Nairobi to the 60-bed isolation ward at the Kenyatta National Hospital where the first suspected case was handled. Outgoing Health Cabinet Secretary Sicily Kariuki revealed that the government had sent out doctors for training on how to handle the virus and they were expected to arrive on Saturday together with test kits and reagents.

Initially, samples taken from suspected cases were being dispatched to South Africa for testing. All the four of them were negative. However, the situation is not an excuse for the government to leave Kenyan citizens in the hands of a foreign country, however perfect its response to the crisis.

While Kenyan officials are reluctant to admit that there could be more than lack of capacity in settling on the decision not to evacuate, it has been implicit in their responses. Both Ms Kariuki and Mr Kamau have described China as "gallant" in its response to the crisis and the manner it has taken care of affected Kenyans.

"The government takes this opportunity to recognise the great work undertaken by the Chinese government and people in fighting the spread of the virus in China and in particular, in keeping Kenyan students caught up at the epicenter of the epidemic safe and healthy," the Health Cabinet Secretary said last week.

Mr Kamau was quoted as saying: "We have seen a situation where Kenyans have been taken care of, have been reached out to and have been facilitated by the government of China and the people of China in ways that show they have lots of respect for our people." Like Kenya, neighbouring Uganda has also ignored the cries of its citizens in Wuhan.

A medical student who has been at the forefront in seeking intervention at one point even expressed fears of arrest, stating the Chinese embassy in Kampala was seeking his full details, including the university he was based at.


So far, no country can claim to have been prepared for the coronavirus outbreak, including the United States, which has equally been scrambling to deal with the situation. But this did not stop them from evacuating their nationals save for the enforcement of the quarantine in place. For instance, the nearly 200 US nationals, including diplomats and embassy employees, who were the first to be evacuated from Wuhan were quarantined at March Air Reserve Base in California with the Centres for Disease Control (CDC) saying there was no risk of spreading the virus to other people after a 14-day period.

Some other countries such as Brazil are holding evacuees for 18 days. Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya are among African nations that have evacuated hundreds of their nationals from Wuhan.


Others, including Nigeria and South Africa have been reluctant to do so despite desperate pleas from their nationals trapped in Wuhan. Does Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya value their citizens more than other African countries, Kenya included? It is no secret that China is a major player in Kenya with many multi-billion shilling projects being financed by the Asian giant and that stronger ties are important both at the bilateral and multilateral levels, including getting support for a non-permanent seat at the UN Security Council. But this must not in any way blind decision making in matters of life and death such as response to the coronavirus outbreak.