• Covid's stealthy entry was a case of history repeating itself after HIV's spread in 2003
• Port officials revisit how the facility absorbed the initial shock and flattened the curve
The Port of Mombasa is the heartbeat of the Coast region economy, but in the past three months, it had become one of the hotspot of Covid-19.
While all eyes were turned to the airports as the first case of the coronavirus was reported on March 13, the port apparently was left exposed and unsecured as an international entry point of goods and people.
It may have been a case of dreaded history repeating itself as, way back in 2003, Kilindini Port had become the red zone for the spread of HIV-Aids.
Now with hard lessons learnt from the stealthy entry of Covid-19, the port officials are ready to talk on how the facility absorbed the initial shock and finally flattened the infection curve.
In 2003, when the Kenya Ports Authority was singled out as the fulcrum of HIV-Aids cases, the authority became the centre of focus as management quickly came up with a policy to cushion affected employees.
They instituted a robust welfare programme for workers and became among the first organisations in Kenya to start peer education programmes, a vibrant counselling section and incentives to encourage workers to go for testing. This won them accolades.
KPA principal communications manager Hajji Masemo said this was born out of necessity. “We realised if we did not stand with colleagues, the scourge would wipe them out since there were reports of infections and re-infections in the organisation,” he said.
However, when Covid-19 hit Kenya, nothing prepared KPA for what lay ahead.
It took an alarming rise in confirmed cases at the port for senior employees to be incorporated into the county’s Covid-19 emergency response team in efforts to have a multi-faceted approach.
By April 14, KPA had confirmed seven cases, with three being contracted cleaners. By then, two employees had succumbed to the disease and a dozen others were being monitored in quarantine centres.
The National Emergency Response Committee was asked to review cases in Mombasa as the numbers escalated.
Statistics within that week showed 80-90 per cent of confirmed cases in Mombasa came from KPA.
KPA received 1,000 testing kits for the first phase of mass testing, against a workforce of 7,000-plus employees.
The management also released staff above 58 years and those with pre-existing medical conditions to work from home to avoid crowds at the workplace, says KPA acting MD Rashid Salim.
And with a raft of measures that saw the authority finally tame the curve, they reported a total of 39 confirmed cases. Three were the port cleaners and two were dependants of the port workers. So in essence, KPA had 34 cases.
Dealing with the spread of the virus at the port was a major test for Salim, who had just taken over operations after the resignation of Daniel Manduku on March 26.
He may just have successfully waded through stormy waters at KPA as the board, led by Gen (Rtd) Joseph Kibwana, recruits a substantive MD. Due to the measures to contain the virus, board meetings have to be done virtually as vetting of 150 applicants continues.
I can comfortably say we have achieved over 90 per cent of what we ought to, or even higherKPA principal communications manager Hajji Masemo
Behind the scenes of frequent updates on the numbers and interventions was paranoia that had to be overcome.
Unlike in 2003 when KPA conducted testing of its staff and offered counselling, this time, Covid-19 came with its own fears.
Hajji himself, who was among the first employees to be tested, confirmed that employees feared testing and the repercussions that accompanied it.
“I was having a bad cold but it was clearing. That day, I was with Benard Osero, (head of corporate affairs), and Capt William Ruto (operations GM). We all tested amid worries over what will happen if found positive,” Hajji said.
He had prepared his family for any eventuality. The results, however, came back negative.
Some were not so lucky. Fatuma Athman* (not her real name) tested positive and was immediately taken to the Coast General Hospital isolation centre.
“Life was not easy. We used to share toilets and had up to eight people in one room. Water was also a challenge, sharing of soap was the norm and some of us had to send for buckets from home,” says Athman, who works at the Welfare department where Ursula Buluma, her colleague, had succumbed to the disease on April 2.
She says there was lot of stigma associated with the disease.
Titus Omondi, an employee at the convectional cargo section, says they talked sense into each other.
“We agreed that the coronavirus is just a disease and it’s treatable," he says. "If we don’t run away from people with more severe and infectious cases like tuberculosis, why should we fear corona?”
The section had one of its staffers, James Oyugi, succumb to the disease, and he was buried in Siaya county, where he had travelled to. The section also recorded the highest number of infections and quarantine cases, according to KPA officials.
The Health department, led by Health executive Hazel Koitaba, held meetings with KPA weeks ago and made an arrangement to have KPA employees transferred to Jocham Hospital.
As of last week, there were only five cases remaining in admission at Jocham, who were expected to be released by the end of the week.
Koitaba said Mombasa county has secured a 300-bed capacity at the Technical University of Mombasa.
Mombasa Governor Hassan Joho said there was a further 19-bed capacity at Coast General Hospital, with an extension at Lady Grigg maternity that has 90 beds to accommodate more numbers.
Joho, who has been at the forefront in calling for residents to go for testing, said doctors have been trained to deal with Covid-19 cases.
Other private facilities have also been providing isolation units. In a recent stakeholders' meeting under the banner of Association of Ports and Harbors, KPA was singled out among the few ports that had declared how the virus has impacted business, and cases of employees affected by the disease.
KPA had also appointed a committee of senior managers to plan, manage and coordinate the authority's preparedness to combat the virus.
HOW CURVE WAS FLATTENED
Being a key facilitator of maritime trade, KPA, together with the Port Public Health officers, rolled out detailed procedures at the facility.
Hajji expressed confidence with the progress. “I can comfortably say we have achieved over 90 per cent of what we ought to, or even higher,” he said.
"Issues on cessation and curfews also affected us initially, but we ensured our 100-plus employees who work outside Mombasa are detailed as essential service providers."
Mandatory pre-arrival reporting on board was to be undertaken at least 48 hours before a vessel's arrival in Kenya's territorial waters.
All arriving vessels with crew or passengers with recent travel history to countries with confirmed cases of Covid-19 underwent special monitoring.
Every ship that entered Kenya from a country with confirmed cases of Covid-19 was subjected to rigorous inspection in the designated location as directed by the harbour master in consultation with Port Health Office.
In a statement, MD Salim said, “Crew/passengers of vessels from confirmed Covid-19 countries will not be granted shore passes. Only Kenyans and foreigners with valid residence permits will be allowed to disembark after presentation of health declaration forms.”
Lift operations were halted, with employees walking up to the sixth floor to access the offices.
Use of biometric access to KPA was also suspended, as port passes or IDs were encouraged.
“We also encouraged billing to be online and limited interactions at the port. As at now, we have around 60-70 per cent of the workforce,” Salim said.
Fumigation was carried out in offices occupied by staff found to be positive or suspected to have contracted the virus.
Screening and sanitising at the port became the norm as all employees were also provided with protective gear.
When Covid-19 cases were reported at KPA, an employee would be taken to an isolation room at Bandari clinic, waiting to be transferred to a proper facility.
There were, however, fears over the spread at the clinic, leading to some 157 medics at the facility being tested. Most turned out negative.
The county would later order the closure of the facility but by end of April, it was reopened.
Medics were fully equipped with protective gear and also trained on how to handle coronavirus cases.
The second phase of mass testing commenced last Friday but one, and no new cases have been reported.
With focus shifting to Old Town, Mvita and other areas in Mombasa as the hotpots in the infections, KPA has now embarked on a full recovery strategy.
This would entail recalling workers, ensuring their health safety and exercising precautions at work.
A recent 14-day shipping list showed that business is picking up, with Osero confirming that 50 per cent of cargo through the port comes from China.
“When there was a total lockdown in China between the first three months of the year, ships from China were not calling in this region. But now China has eased the lockdown, ports have opened up,” Osero said.
The 60-70 per cent KPA workforce is also set to rise as more employees go back to work.
“Most of the employees who were in quarantine have resumed work. Operations went on normally since some staff had to go the extra mile and multitask,” Osero said.
KPA acts as a gateway for cargo destined for various countries, including landlocked Uganda, Rwanda, Congo, Burundi, South Sudan and Somalia. It also has cargo transshipped to other ports in the Indian Ocean region, with major exports going to Asia and Far East Asia.
Even as business gets back to normal, preventive measures are still being undertaken at the facility.
Salim informed the Star in an earlier interview that despite the slowdown and downscaling of some activities, KPA will not be shut down.
The statement came at a time when the parastatal was at its peak, facing alarming increase of Covid-19 cases.
Edited by T Jalio