German cooperation helps mitigate COVID-19 infection risks for EAC’s airline staff and passengers
East African airspace shut down in mid-March in an attempt to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Now, as airports across the region prepare to reopen, it is vital for the safety of both staff and passengers, that all involved in the aviation industry are trained and well versed in how to deal with COVID-19 and other infectious diseases.
Normally packed with travellers and tourists, Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International airport is now eerily empty. ‘The airport is like a deserted crime scene… nobody wants to come,’ says Adelaide Amaro, a senior performance manager at Kenya Airways. East African airspace largely shut down in mid-March in an attempt to prevent the spread of coronavirus through air travel. Nairobi is an international aviation hub for flights from all over Africa and the rest of the world and the airport normally serves over seven million passengers a year, as well as countless cargo flights full of vital exports, such as Kenyan flowers destined for European markets, so the economic impact of shutdown for both the country and the region has been enormous.
Now, as airports across the region tentatively prepare to reopen – still unclear whether Africa has dodged the worst effects of coronavirus or if the impact of the pandemic is yet to come – it is vital that airports and airlines are able to operate safely to mitigate the potential risks.
An extensive training programme for eight international airports
On behalf of the East African Secretariat, the East African Community Civil Aviation Safety and Security Oversight Agency (EAC CASSOA) with support from the German Government through the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) is looking at ways of strengthening regional pandemic preparedness and response capacities at International Airports (Burundi, Dar es Salaam, Entebbe, Juba, Kigali, Kilimanjaro, Mombasa, Nairobi and possibly Zanzibar). in the East African Community Partner States. This will be done through an extensive programme of training at each of the eight airports, beginning at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) on 26th May.
The training programme supports the East African Community (EAC) Secretariat in its coordinating and advisory function for pandemic preparedness in the region. It is being supported by GIZ’s Pandemic Preparedness Project (PanPrep) based in Arusha, Tanzania, and implemented in cooperation with the African Medical and Research Foundation (AMREF) Flying Doctors service, based in Nairobi. AMREF’s Flying Doctor service has been allowed to operate across the region throughout the crisis. Crucially, its staff are exempt from quarantine measures when travelling between countries and can move freely for the purposes of the training programme.
Improving preparedness, in theory and practice
The main aim of the training is to reduce the risks of spreading COVID-19 into and out of the EAC through aviation. All staff need to be familiarised with national and airport emergency preparedness and response plans and of protocols for surveillance and prevention of the spread of COVID-19. To achieve this, key trainers will be trained and then cascade what they have learned to their own staff or sections, covering airport medical service providers, veterinary services, aircraft/airline operators, airline crew, security, immigration, customs, cargo and baggage handlers, air navigation services and airport rescue and fire-fighting providers.
The training is both theoretical and practical, covering background information about epidemics and the regional standard operating procedures and guidelines for dealing with them. It addresses misconceptions and misinformation about the transmission of COVID-19 and shows participants how to wash their hands properly, use masks, screen passengers’ temperature, including the use of thermal scanners. It also shows participants how to safely clean and disinfect items and areas and how to handle and isolate people with symptoms.
The individuals attending the training of trainers were carefully selected: ‘Only key senior and operational staff can effectively cascade the training on to others effectively’ says Timothy Wesonga of the German-supported PanPrep project. Emile Arao, Executive Director of EAC CASSOA, agrees with him: ‘The training of trainers approach allows us to create a critical mass of competent staff who can ensure that everyone connected with aviation knows what to do and how to prevent COVID-19 from spreading.’
Due to the current restrictions on the number of people allowed to gather in one room, the two-day training sessions can only cover 15 people at a time. Only one person sits at each desk and everyone has to wear masks throughout. Hand washing facilities and sanitisers are provided at the entrance and within the class. ‘We have made sure to mitigate any risks to the participants,’ says Wesonga. Two training sessions are planned for each of the East African international airports so that in 16 two-day training sessions 240 people will be trained in total.
At the same time, PanPrep is supporting airport staff with the procurement of personal protective equipment (PPE). CASSOA’s Emile Arao says he is grateful for this support: ‘We have been able to do this in record time, whilst adhering to procurement regulations. Initially PPE had to be procured from China, but now it is being produced locally to the same standard. The shortage of PPE has led to home grown solutions.’
While the trainees are very motivated to learn and accepting of the ‘new normal’, there is a long way to go in a short time. ‘The way we treat passengers will have to completely change,’ says Adelaide Amaro, a senior performance manager at Kenya Airways in charge of the airline’s operation manuals and training.
‘Nyumba Kumi’: Cooperation is key
‘Nyumba Kumi’ is a Swahili expression roughly meaning ‘you are your brother’s keeper,’ and this sentiment has to be the basis for a regional approach to such outbreaks, says CASSOA’s Emile Arao. Local solutions will not be effective unless the bigger picture is taken into consideration and countries in the region and across Africa work together.
‘We are all very happy about the support we get from the German government for our regional pandemic response. The training conducted by AMREF has been first class,’ says Emile. However, he also warns that it is a ‘drop in the ocean’ when viewed in relation to what is needed. Emile is keen for the training to be shared with other countries and regions as well and has briefed the African High Level Task Force on COVID-19 accordingly. The African Union has also expressed interest in rolling out similar trainings across the continent, including at the domestic airports that feed into Africa’s international airports.
Meanwhile, at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, Adelaide Amaro’s verdict on the two day-training is ‘This has been really useful. It is what every airline needs for going back to work. It will give staff and the public confidence.’
Ruth Evans, June 2020