Police should enforce curfew with restraint
The curfew announced by President Uhuru Kenyatta this week took effect last night as the government intensified efforts to contain the spread of Covid-19.
Unlike other countries that declared a complete lockdown, stopping every public activity and forcing everyone to stay indoors, Kenya opted for a dusk-to-dawn restriction, allowing citizens to go about their business during the day.
Informing this is the understanding that our economy is largely driven by the informal sector, supporting more than 80 per cent of the population, for whom daily work is non-negotiable because that is their only source of upkeep.
For that population, failing to go to work even for a single day means their families going without a meal and rendered unable to meet all other socio-economic obligations.
A complete lockdown would have grave consequences on the economy: production would grind to a halt and that would affect the entire business chain, including sourcing of raw materials and securing markets for them.
A curfew, therefore, is a compromise to enable the economy to run while creating restrictions to limit infections.
In this context, it is hoped that the curfew will cause people to stay indoors and avoid irresponsible activities that would expose them to arrest by the police.
Reckless behaviour that may trigger further and harsher actions has to be avoided.
Simply, citizens have to obey the law and implement the protocols spelt out by the Ministry of Health. With the number of infected standing at 31, all efforts must be channelled towards controlling the spread.
Indeed, the police and other agencies have been roped into this fight, yet, ideally, they are better off dealing with other critical security matters.
Even so, the government has to handle the situation with restraint. It should provide clear guidelines about the curfew, explaining the protocols involved.
For instance, the curfew does not translate into abrogation of individual rights. Whatever the authorities do must be within the law.
On Friday, Inspector-General of Police Hillary Mutyambai highlighted what would be done to those violating the directives.
However, he did not provide details, for example, on how the police will handle the arrests.
Where will they take those arrested, given the government is seeking to decongest police cells and prisons to curb the spread of the virus?
How and where will the cases be handled without compromising public health? What are the safety precautions in the custodies?
There are legitimate fears that, given the characteristic behaviour of the police officers, chances are that some will resort to extortion to cash in on the situation to make money from hapless citizens.
Public assurance is pertinent in this regard. Systems ought to be put in place to eliminate corrupt practices in the entire process.
Thus far, the public has not been sufficiently apprised of what is expected of them or better, their rights and entitlements.
Police will certainly do random checks and arrest those found to be violating the curfew directive.
But unless professionally executed, that is bound to be counter-intuitive and cause bad blood between the public and the police.
Put simply, the police should publish the dos and don’ts to make it easier for everyone to understand and do the correct thing.
Public education is paramount and, in particular, the police service requires new orientation to enable them deal fairly, humanly but firmly with the citizens.
It is noted that although the government has provided a list of the essential services to be exempted during the curfew, there is no clarity of how they will be identified.
This is the first time in nearly 40 years that the country is going through this painful experience and a majority of the population is strange to it.
The last time the country had a curfew was in 1982, following the failed political coup by a section of the military.
Contexts are different and so are the objectives. To date, the country is grappling with a killer medical crisis that requires minimal social contact and which goal is best achieved through limiting movements.
Getting the public to understand that objective is vital. The country is not at war but is dealing with an unprecedented medical challenge that requires totally new thinking.
All said, the public is apprehensive about the way the curfew will be implemented and how their life will change, and they need assurance that everything will be done within the law.
Covid-19 has occasioned unprecedented pain and disruptions in our midst; the way it is handled will determine how far we go in eliminating it and emerging a stronger, vibrant nation.