How Kenya uses Chinese technology to fight the coronavirus

By South Sudanese journalist Priscilla Njambi, first published in The Insider South Sudan

Kenyan Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe receives the temperature measuring robot “Jasiri”. (Photo: Safaricom)

Susan Wairimu’s encounter with the “anti-epidemic” robots at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) left her mesmerized at the efforts in place to fight COVID-19.

In an interview with The Insider, she narrated how the robots, made by Chinese robotics company UBtech, and dubbed Jasiri (Courage), Shujaa (Warrior) and Tumaini (Hope), were pivotal in ensuring that measures put in place to fight the virus were observed at the biggest airport in East Africa.

As robot Jasiri does his rounds, he sprays fine jets of sanitizer from containers attached to his sides, and takes infrared pictures with a camera mounted on an extendable neck while scanning hundreds of passengers per minute. The glossy white robot has been stationed at Nairobi’s main international airport, keeping it disinfected and monitoring arrivals for signs of the virus.

“Jasiri is able to scan and detect the distance between the passengers, asking the ones who are not observing social distance to do so. It also spots those not wearing masks at the same time collecting relevant data including temperatures of the passengers and storing it,” she added.

“There was a long queue, but we have a system which can take more than one hundred people’s temperature at the same time. This is a time saver and overrules the routine arrival formalities thus saving passengers time,” said Wairimu.

JKIA Operations Manager Simon Peter Njoroge says Jasiri represents the future of aviation. “It is a tool for safety especially right now when there’s a need to restore confidence in the aviation industry. What I see is the future of aviation,” he said during an interview with Safaricom, Kenya’s telecommunication company. “The future is going towards contactless travel and automation with a greater focus on health security. Jasiri’s role in this airport is to enhance the safety of international travel.”

The other robots, Tumani and Shujaa, are at the Mbagathi and Kenyatta National Hospitals respectively. The three robots are valued at KSh35 million (US$350,000).

This is one of the latest efforts by Kenya to use technology from China in fighting the dreaded virus as it marks its first anniversary in the country. A week after Kenya reported its first COVID-19 case, the Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe and experts from the Ministry of Health held a video conference with their counterparts in China to learn from their experiences in managing and responding to the COVID-19 outbreak.

In a press statement, Huawei, who provided the video-conference equipment, emphasized its commitment in helping Kenya tackle the spread of the virus. Huawei Kenya CEO, Stone He, pointed out that this was a clear example of how “technology can help with communication, collaboration and coordination which are critical in tackling the COVID-19 threat.”

In July 2020, the Chief Administrative Secretary for Health, Dr Rashid Aman, received a third donation of teleconferencing equipment from Huawei Kenya to foster face-to-face communication with experts all around the globe.

Delivered by Fiona Pan, Deputy CEO, Public Affairs Huawei Kenya, the equipment has proven helpful in facilitating video calls with experts in China to learn from their experience in mitigating COVID-19.

Some Kenyans are, however, sceptical about using the machines mandated to determine their health journey. Milka Muthoni claimed that the machines involved in the fight can be a shaming tool.

“The machines shout out your information especially if your temperature is high, which would make anyone panic. Already, the stigmatization around patients with COVID remains high, and such machines could make you victimized. At JKIA, they order you to put on a mask, which is very embarrassing as other passengers turn and stare at you,” she added in an interview with The Insider.

John Njoroge who used the machine at Kenyatta Hospital to test for the disease, was impressed with the speed of the results. He, however, raised queries about their accuracy.

“What happens when they overrun? Do they run a risk of it getting overheated? Although I took the scan I feared getting the most scary health results from a manmade tool. Though the test turned negative, I did not even trust the machine and had to look for a second opinion from a different hospital,” he added.

Priscilla Jerop, a clinical psychologist who has been working at an isolation centre in one of the major hospitals in Kenya, notes that electronic medical records/databases in hospitals have reduced contacts through patient’s physical files. In addition, laboratory reports and clinical progress notes can be accessed electronically, making it easier to attend to patients.

“Those in isolation units and Covid ICUs were able to maintain communication with their families. This communication reduced anxiety for both relatives and the patient, who were not allowed to mingle,” she stated.

A doctor, who preferred to remain anonymous, hailed the use of technology in this fight, saying that it saved frontline workers from the risk of getting into contact with a patient before they undergo the initial diagnosis.

“Not only does it save time it also does the first basic tests, which are very important when it comes to diagnosis and treatment of COVID-19. We now have tools that are very instrumental and ensure that we remain protected even as we seek to save lives,” stated the doctor.

Kenya has so far lost 1,899 lives to Covid-19 and had more than 111,000 infected.