• Irungu Houghton

Our rights, the virus and 2020




Thursday was International Human Rights Day 2020. Human rights defenders globally marked the day by reflecting on how the world can recover better from COVID-19. Given our national experience this year, the theme was apt.


Two words - distress and defiance - best describe 2020. For the best part of the year, the pandemic brought moments of panic and even pandemonium. The constitution, our highest text, was subjected to the greatest test since its’ promulgation ten years ago. Our personal freedoms were restricted in a way we have not seen since the State of Emergency in the 1950s.


For the first time in living memory, a small and invisible virus threatened our health, livelihoods, relationships and right to life regardless of our class, gender, ethnicity or sexual preference. Globally, it robbed families, communities and nations of more than 1.5 million people since the start of the year. Kenya has lost six people every day or a total of over 1,500 men, women and children since patient zero.


Although everyone has been affected, not everyone has been affected in the same way. In previous columns, I have demonstrated that the pandemic did discriminate. It targeted the elderly, those with pre-existing health conditions and the poor disproportionately. Our public responses also fell short of protecting those at the bottom of our steep class pyramid who needed it most. The stigma, discrimination and violence either by police officers, spouses, parents and other citizens did not focus on the rich and influential but those without power and privilege.


Yet, we must also celebrate the solidarity the virus didn’t plan on. This year, we saw communities and businesses rise up to support other communities with emergency food, water and mask supplies. In standing up for the rights of others, we protected their lives and dignity. We also gave the constitution the air to breathe through 2020.


The choice by the Jubilee administration to use the Public Health Act to fight the pandemic was wise. The state avoided the excessive violence and over-militarisation that has followed state of emergency declarations elsewhere in the world. The restrictions on international and domestic travel, night-time activities and attendance in schools, places of worship and bars helped reduce the spikes.


On several occasions, the nation was horrified by the disproportionate use of lethal force and assault by several police officers especially between April and July months of curfew. Thirteen-year-old Yassin Moyo, Mercy Cherono of Olengurone, James “Vaite” Njeru of Mathare and others will remain etched in the conscience of the public and hopefully also, the National Police Service.


There were also misadventures both by State Officers and us, the public. The mandatory quarantine programme degenerated into a punishment mechanism for most. Before it was abandoned under public protest, there were numerous complaints about the mistreatment, non-disclosure of testing procedures, poor sanitary facilities, inadequate food supply and possible exposure to COVID-19. Some of the former detainees have since taken the Government to court in a class action suit. Too many of us, ignored the Health Ministers’ pleas to mask up, wash hands, stay at home and space out. In so doing, we suffocated our constitution and risked others.


United Nations Secretary General António Guterres speech on Thursday called for Governments to place people and their rights at the center of all recovery responses. Prioritising universal rights-based public health frameworks is key to recover better. His message must disturb our policymakers. Whereas there have been spirited attempts to expand intensive care facilities across county governments, we must point out, a four-county pilot is not universal health coverage yet.


Perhaps, we could declare a 2021 moratorium on the rapid infrastructural projects. Freeways are futile even for ambulances if our health facilities are under-resourced, our health-workers under-supported and unprotected.


While pointing at the systemic failures this year, we can salute the efforts of public health officers, police officers, investigators, prosecutors and human rights defenders who made sure that Yassin Moyo’s parents and others across the Republic saw the wheels of justice start to roll in their favour.


2020 reminds us that courage and decency emerges from the most unexpected places. We saw it this week in those students of Lugulu Secondary school, Webuye. After their teachers failed to act, they marched to the nearest Police Station Commanding Officer. There, they demanded the arrest of a man who had defiled their colleague. “May the blood of Jesus” (their words), the constitution and state protect them and all of us that declare zero-tolerance on corruption, human rights violations and impunity.


Happy belated Human Rights Day all!


This opinion also appeared in the Saturday Standard 12 December 2021

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