The multiple faces of coronavirus outbreak


Nurses in protective gears at Mbagathi Hospital in Nairobi. FILE PHOTO | NMG

My friend and classmate from primary school all the way to university, Kenneth Micheu, recently reminded me of one of our set books in high school, The Plague, by Albert Camus, the French-Algerian Nobel Prize winning writer and philosopher. The novel tells the story of a plague sweeping the French-Algerian city of Oran. It asks a number of questions relating to the nature of destiny and the human condition.

The characters in the book, ranging from doctors to vacationers and fugitives, all help to show the effects that the plague has on human behaviour. The novel is believed to have been based on the cholera epidemic that killed a large percentage of Oran’s population in 1849 following the French colonisation, but the events are placed in the 1940s. There are many uncanny similarities in the book with the events surrounding today’s coronavirus pandemic.

There is no doubt that the coronavirus outbreak is a pandemic of enormous proportions which has spread rapidly throughout the entire world. It is a highly contagious virus spread through close human contact and infected surfaces. As of the time of writing, there are 423,330 recorded cases of infection worldwide and the figure continues to grow exponentially on a daily basis. So far 18,906 deaths have been recorded globally. The epicentre has moved from China to Europe and there are fears that a new epicentre may develop in the USA.

The virus has proved to be a great leveller of the human race as it does not discriminate across the rich nor the poor and indeed across race or colour. Celebrities like Tom Hanks, Andy Cohen and Idris Elba have tested positive for coronavirus. Manu Dibango the Cameroonian jazz legend succumbed to the virus this week. Public figures have not been spared either for example, Prince Charles, Sophie Gregoire Trudeau, the wife of the Canadian Prime Minister, Nadine Dorries, the British health minister and Prince Albert of Monaco all have tested positive for the virus. Older people seem to be at higher risk of infection and death owing to their already compromised immune systems but young people are also at risk, albeit to a much lesser degree.

The affected countries have put in place measures to slow down the pace of new infections some of which include total lockdown. But the most effective countermeasure is observance of basic hygiene by washing hands regularly with soap or alcohol-based handwashing fluids and avoiding close contact with other human beings and infected surfaces.

In Kenya, latest reports indicate total infections stand at 25 but testing is ongoing and this figure is expected to grow. So far, no deaths have been reported. The government has advised Kenyans to stay and work from home and places of public assembly have been closed down. Local travel, except for emergencies and essential services has been banned. International travel was suspended from 25 March 2020.

There have been numerous calls for the government to order lockdown in Kenya. Whereas, I concur that lockdown is inevitable and has proved effective elsewhere, notably in China where normalcy is slowly returning, we must be cautious not to copy and paste what other countries have done. Lockdown needs to be carefully thought out and planned in order to achieve the desired effect of slowing down the disease and providing relief for all citizens.

The government needs to consult widely with all stakeholders in the public, private and multi-agency sectors to come up with a well-coordinated strategy. Tax reliefs, grace periods on loan repayment and rent holidays are all well and good for those in the middle to upper income brackets and corporates, but what about those vulnerable citizens who do not pay taxes anyway and will not be able to go to work to earn that Sh100? The plight of these people must be addressed if we are to avoid a catastrophe.

We need to provide food points, water, sanitisers, hygiene management facilities and security close to these vulnerable communities. I appreciate those employers who have sent their farm and domestic workers home on full pay and who are shopping for their foodstuffs. I also congratulate those corporates who have commenced initiatives to provide relief for the needy. We are all in this together.

We must obey the rules that the government is issuing from time to time in order to safeguard ourselves and not to put others at risk. We are the last mile connectivity in the transmission of this virus so we must behave responsibly at a personal level. The behaviour of a certain priest and a deputy governor was absolutely atrocious, to say the least about people who knew better but chose to put so many other people at risk.

Of course, there are the usual detractors who are unhappy that the narrative about Africa is not manifesting in this pandemic. I have in mind a fake story in the Der Spiegel magazine that 6 million face masks had disappeared in Kenya while on transit. What concerns me most is that some Kenyans readily bought the story and went on a rampage lambasting unnamed Kenyans for theft and corruption without any evidence. Why do we have such a low self-image, I ask yet again? The other story appeared on BBC, Focus on Africa, about Kibera and how the slum was likely to be overwhelmed if the coronavirus were to land there because it is crowded and lacks water and sanitation. Why is BBC so concerned about “what if “stories in Africa, when they have a more serious pandemic at home?

This is a time to rally together as a nation and to bring out that indomitable fighting spirit which we have demonstrated in the past. We can beat this scourge if we work together.

Stay at home, stay safe. Is this not a wonderful opportunity to spend quality time with your children and have a one-on-one with your spouse, however daunting the latter might be?