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  • Writer's pictureIrungu Houghton

Use better ways to convince us to take the Covid vaccine

Last Sunday’s National Emergency Response Committee announcement caught national attention. With vaccination slowing down, it was predictable that Health Ministry would look for new strategies. What can Kenya learn from experiences of introducing COVID-19 vaccine mandates and certificates elsewhere?

Under Chairperson Dr. Willis Akhwale’s leadership, several guidelines have been announced that come into force on December 21. They include banning unvaccinated persons from entering government offices and facilities to seek services the government is obligated by law to provide. These include immigration offices, taxation, education, health facilities, prisons among others. The guidelines went further to recommend locking out the unvaccinated from public service vehicles, domestic and international flights, restaurants, hotels, national parks, places of worship and small and medium enterprises.

The implications were immediately clear for millions. No Christmas mass, up-country home visits, holidays by the coast or in our parks but also no jobs to go to on December 22. Given that Kenya has not yet crossed the 10 per cent threshold, unless they can get vaccinated in the next three weeks, 43 million people may have some serious career and lifestyle adjustments to make.

While human rights organisations and the public have been rightly concerned on the harmful implications for the public, in effect the NERC has also re-introduced the largely abortive August directive to civil servants to vaccinate or be barred from their workplaces.

The guidelines fall short of the weight of the Executive Order of 28 February 2020. That Executive Order instructed the Health Ministry, County Governments, and the public to flatten COVID-19 by upgrading health facilities in seven days, work from home, mask up and other health measures. The national call to action left me and several others inspired by the leadership demonstrated at the time. Last Sunday’s statement not so much.

Vaccine mandates and certificates are both popular and controversial across many countries. On 9 September, US President issued an Executive Order that made vaccination mandatory for all federal employees and indoor mask up requirements for public and private facilities. At least six American Governors including Arizona and Alabama have pushed back and issued their own Executive orders prohibiting the penalising of any businesses or industries who comply with the federal mandates.

While pressing against mandatory vaccination policies, we must accelerate unscientific and medically unsound anti-vaccination arguments. Only universal vaccination will protect us agony and trauma of the families of 5,000 who have lost their lives and 1,000s of others bankrupted by intensive care treatment costs. Only universal vaccination can release us economic lockdowns, curfews, and the daily inconvenience of wearing masks. Vaccination, as Citizen journalist Jamilla Mohamed powerfully noted in her weekly Memo, is simply responsible citizenship. We must treat it like yellow fever and polio immunization, protect ourselves and those around us.

Bullying Kenyans to jab or lose their jobs, be locked out of police, health, and education services and not to be able travel will back-fire. How this will be monitored or enforced? Will it become a criminal offence for employers to admit employees without certificates? How will we stem reports that Health Ministry officials will not sell certificates or others photoshop their own? When will these restrictions lapse or is this an indefinite lockout?

Better stakeholder consultation and collaboration would help. It is worth remembering that unlike European and North American contexts, only 4 million Kenyans are in the formal sector. For the 15 million people in the informal sector the context kwaground is very different. Let us face the sceptics squarely with information and the disinterested with a sense of urgency. Informed and voluntary mass uptake of the vaccine is the way we crush the virus.

I would hope this analysis and a commitment to human rights was the reason Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe announced there will be no mandatory vaccination in January 2021. Stay the course Mr Minister, your cause is just but these proposed guidelines are not. We have not run out of imagination, rally us.

This opinion was first published in the Saturday Standard on 27 November 2021


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