Let me declare at the outset, by way of preface, that I am not a public health expert. I mean, I could be, but I have chosen a much more boring path for my life. So I am speaking here as an ordinary citizen, who lays no claim to a monopoly of the truth on this issue. In fact, I will do my best to avoid detail in this treatment, because I don’t want to make a fool of myself.
That said, there are those whose opinions matter on this topic. According to the best of the lot, like the WHO and the American CDC, COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, seems destined to become a global pandemic. More and more cases are sprouting around the world. The question now is not if, but rather when, each country will confirm its first case and start chasing eradication.
Controlling the outbreak has proven quite tough for nearly every affected country. China, the eye of the storm, is the world’s largest economy (by purchasing power parity GDP). The government there has pulled all stops, as far as we know, to contain the disease. It has even put an entire province, which has more people than Kenya, under a very tight quarantine. Yet all this hasn’t stopped it from recording almost 80,000 cases as I write this.
The Americans have freaked out, pumping immense amounts of money and big names (like they always do) into their effort to break the wave. Europe is on panic mode, because it is becoming apparent that the virus may have been in northern Italy much longer than earlier thought, meaning there might be a lot more cases on the continent. The only confirmed case in Sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, is of an Italian who travelled to Nigeria.
Which is why it is ridiculous that the Kenyan government seems very cavalier about the way it’s handling the possibility of the virus coming over for tea. From the outset, it has seemed quite lax in setting in place measures to reassure us that it is ready to protect us from this virus. A litany of its errors could run pages, but I believe you have kept tabs, so I can spare my pages the indignity of hosting that ignominious list.
Now, as an ordinary citizen, who has no special window into the daily workings of the state, I cannot categorically declare that our government is not ready for this. Those 11 or 39 or I don’t know how many beds we have been told about might amount to something. Or perhaps the reagents we received from the WHO might help us test suspected cases faster.
The public face of government might seem incompetent, but public services are ultimately (where it matters) delivered by professionals, and some of them are very good at what they do. For example, airplanes don’t routinely collide when landing or taking off at our airports because, it seems, air traffic controllers really know their job.
The problem is that, at moments like this, being technically prepared, which is itself no mean feat, is not enough. Reassuring the public about that preparedness is just as important. And if a government doesn’t have a very good reputation, like ours, it must put extra work into this effort. Some honesty can go a long way.
And it should start with answering the queries of citizens with a modicum of respect and dollops of patience. What we have gotten, instead, are patronising sermons from the heads of our ministries (pun fully intended), and suspended employees. It is only yesterday that the highest authority in the land declared that this was something worth paying attention to.
So far, the odds have been inexplicably in our favour. Despite our close ties with China, we have not been as adversely affected as other countries. With our self-deprecating humour, we have taken it as a sign that perhaps the good Lord sees how badly off we are, what with locusts and endless BBI rallies, and would be loath to add another burden onto our tired backs.
But we also know that odds often fail, and that they are more likely to fail in those cases where the people who set the odds don’t really care about the people they expect to count on those odds. The bettors among us know this all too well. Counting on odds we can’t even explain seems to me to be the height of folly.
As for me and my house, I have had enough of this nonsense. I will go out and buy myself some masks tomorrow. If we meet on the streets, don’t shake my hand. I am evaluating alternative greeting options, and suggestions are welcome.
PS – This is not an attempt to create panic. Please seek accurate information and act rationally. Being a fool during a disease outbreak might not be a very good idea. Choose a struggle.
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