U.S. warns of Y2k breakdowns

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East Africa

US Warns of Y2K Breakdowns

The East African (Nairobi) December 23, 1999

Nairobi - The United States has set up contingency plans, including possible evacuation of its citizens, in case essential services in East Africa are disrupted by the Y2K computer bug.

The US plans to evacuate all official personnel who may require "care of a technical nature." This move comes at a time when Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda say they are prepared for the possible effects of the Y2K bug but there is still widespread concern that the level of preparedness in the region is inadequate.

A report issued by the United Nations-sponsored International Y2K Operation Centre on sub-Saharan Africa, dated Dec 13, states that problems could result from donated health equipment. "Many countries outside Africa have donated equipment, especially in the health sector, whose Y2K status is seemingly undeterminable due to lack of proper serial/model identification," the report said.

However, the US embassy in Nairobi dismissed reports attributed to the State Department that the US government had evacuated all its official personnel and pregnant women requiring "care of a technical nature" out of fear of anticipated disruptions in the country's medical services.

Mr. Chris Scharf, the press officer at the embassy, told The EastAfrican that the three or four evacuations "in recent weeks" had nothing to do with the Y2K problem.

"There is no mass evacuation as depicted by the reports," he said after learning of the story. "It is a routine matter, a worldwide policy by the United States missions abroad that if an American citizen has a medical condition which requires high technology treatment and which is not available in the host country, he or she can be flown to the United States."

This, he added, would apply to pregnant American women who would wish to deliver in the States.

Said Mr. Scharf: "In some cases, it is not possible to make a diagnosis in Kenya, and in this case a decision for evacuation is made by the medical personnel at the embassy."

He pointed out that the reason the embassy had rushed to fly home three pregnant women by December 15 was purely predicated on the Christmas rush associated with massive flight bookings in the festive season. Elsewhere throughout East Africa, Y2K preparedness has been made possible with financial support from the United Kingdom, from which the three neighbouring states have since developed an excellent emergency response system.

In Kenya, US embassy personnel recently visited a cross-section of Kenya hospitals which they gave a clean bill of health. "Our personnel were impressed with the level of preparedness so far achieved in these hospitals," the US embassy official said. He did not however name the hospitals visited.

Earlier last week, the State Department said that the US government had evacuated its officials and pregnant women in an operation that was concluded on December 15. According to its update issued during the week beginning December 6, hospitals in Kenya are at threat mainly from loss of electric power, with the telecommunications sector also facing the risk of disruptions.

"It is difficult to predict the severity or duration of Y2K-related problems in Kenya or elsewhere in East Africa," the State Department update said.

Dr Cedric Dumont, the State Department's medical director, later said that no official personnel had as yet been evacuated - because none of the US personnel in any of the countries in East Africa fitted the criteria for such evacuation.

In Uganda, the contingency arrangements so far made include stocking up with enough water should the systems fail, and acquiring power generators for all installations, Mr. Virgil Bodeen, the US spokesperson in Kampala, said.

Said Mr. Bodeen: "The US embassy has been in frequent contact with the Uganda Y2K Force regarding national critical compliance. Critical sectors are energy, transport, communications, water and sewage, finance and health. While we do not anticipate significant disruptions, the embassy recognises that the Y2K phenomenon is complex and will continue to monitor the situation."

However, other embassy sources expressed concern over Uganda's Y2K preparedness in the health sector, and encouraged pregnant American women in Kampala to return home. The sources further said the US was still doubtful about Uganda's Y2K compliance rates. "We accept the government position that everything is Y2K-compliant. But we still have some concerns," the source said.

When The EastAfrican contacted the US embassy in Dar-es-Salaam, a guard said the ambassador could not be reached for comment until Monday. But reliable sources from the embassy said an alert had already been issued and that any officials affected would have left by now.

The sources said a team of embassy officials had visited all key utility companies such as the Tanzania Electric Supply Company, the Tanzania Telecommunication Company Limited, the Dar-es-Salaam Water and Sanitation Authority and almost all banks to ascertain their Y2K compliance.

The sources said the US officials found out that almost all the places they visited were compliant but still went ahead to issue the alert.

Telkom Kenya's Public Relations Manager, Mr. Yona Omiti, said: "There are a lot of distortions out there about the true Y2K state of the company" and blamed the new wave of fears about the company on these "distortions".

Mr. Omiti said Telkom Kenya had invited the CNN along with other media for a tour of the company this week together with the country's Y2K National Steering Committee and permanent secretaries from ministries directly affected by the bug to assess the readiness.

An update from the steering committee indicates Telkom Kenya's Y2K project started in 1997 and was completed at the end of June 1999 when the parastatal's system and processes were certified ready. Diligence testing, contingency and evaluation and monitoring are all ongoing.

According to the Kenya National Y2K Co-ordination Centre, both Kenya Power and Lighting Company Ltd. (KPLC), the company responsible for the transmission, distribution and retail of electricity in Kenya and Telkom Kenya, the country's telecommunications service provider, were Y2K ready.

"We have confirmed the Y2K readiness for KPLC, all the contingency plans are in place and the emergency response centres have been set up," said a co-ordinator at the Centre. He said Telkom Kenya was also ready for the millennium problem, with the telecommunications services, data services, national and international phone services and mobile phones all compliant.

*Reported by Kevin J. Kelly in Washington, E. Ogoso Opolot in Kampala, Premy Kibanga in Dar-es-Saalam and Vitalis Omondi in Nairobi

Publication date: December 20-26, 1999

-- Homer Beanfang (Bats@inbellfry.com), December 23, 1999

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