A direct flight from China to Kenya's capital Nairobi was almost made to turn back after officials at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) refused to clear passengers from Guangzhou as tension over coronavirus continues to rise.
This came as the Nation established that some airliners originating from China were still being allowed to land at JKIA weeks after national carrier Kenya Airways suspended its flights on the route over the risk of importing the virus.
By last evening, at least 80,000 people had been diagnosed with the illness globally, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), which said the rapidly spreading disease had attained “pandemic potential”.
Africa has recorded its first two cases of the disease, in Egypt and Algeria.
By last evening, 2,770 people had been killed worldwide by the virus, forcing more countries to impose barriers in efforts to keep the disease at bay.
Several countries have issued travel advisories to their citizens, warning them against non-essential travel to China.
Consequently, several airlines have stopped flights to China until the situation is brought under control. At least 20 airlines have suspended flights from mainland China, including American Airlines, Air France, British Airways, Delta Air Lines, KLM, Qatar Airways and United Airlines.
In East Africa, RwandAir, Air Tanzania and Kenya Airways suspended flights in January.
The decision has hit cash-strapped Kenya Airways hard. On Monday, the airline said it had lost $8 million in revenue. KQ operates the Nairobi-Guangzhou route via Bangkok thrice a week.
“We are looking at lost revenue of about $8 million, both passenger and cargo. However, various initiatives are in place to increase passenger and cargo revenues on other routes to minimise this impact,” said KQ acting chief executive Allan Kilavuka.
But as the airline continues to absorb losses, China Southern Airlines, which just two weeks ago said it had stopped direct flights from Guangzhou to Nairobi, has been flying all along.
The airline on February 10 said it had cancelled its four weekly direct flights to Nairobi until June.
“The last Guangzhou flight will be on February 10, these changes will last up to March 28,” said the airline’s Marketing Manager Belinda Agwena at that time. “The cancellation of the flights has largely been driven by the need to combat coronavirus.”
But the airline’s managers did not keep their word. On Wednesday some officials at JKIA refused to allow passengers from the airline to disembark.
Flight CZ 6043 landed at JKIA at 7:29am to a hostile reception. Sources told the Nation that medical officials at the airport refused to screen passengers, who were not allowed to leave the plane for almost an hour.
It took the intervention of senior government officials to resolve the problem.
“All 239 passengers were screened on board, cleared and advised to self-quarantine for the next 14 days,” said the Ministry of Health in response to a Nation inquiry.
The ministry advised Kenyans against non-essential travel to countries experiencing the outbreak.
“This is in view of the expanding geographical spread of the outbreak across the world.”
Other airlines still flying from China to Kenya include Ethiopian Airlines and China Eastern. Ethiopian Airways flies five times a week from Guangzhou to Nairobi via Addis Ababa.
China Eastern flies three times a week from Guangzhou to Nairobi via Bangkok. Kenya Airways has retained its Bangkok-Nairobi route. Bangkok is popular among passengers from Asia intending to travel to Nairobi.
WHO has identified Kenya among 13 top priority countries that either have direct links or a high volume of travel to China.
The agency said the 13 countries should be prepared for containment, including active surveillance, early detection, isolation and case management, contact tracing and prevention and sharing data.
Kenya has had three false alerts over patients thought to have been infected by the virus.
The Health ministry said it has investigated 17 alerts and all tested negative for Covid-19.
On Tuesday, two alerts — one on Riara Road and the other in Valley Arcade in Nairobi — were investigated and did not meet the WHO case definition criteria.