Three weeks ago, I visited a friend’s M-Pesa stall in Gatundu town and was left troubled. During the transaction, an uncouth lout rudely interrupted us so he could buy airtime.
Although there was water and soap in a container outside, he neither washed his hands, nor did he feel any shame jostling me for attention without a mask on.
When I turned round in disgust to watch him leave, I unwittingly touched an elderly woman in the wrong place and was dumbfounded: She had been behind me all along, standing barely a foot away from me.
In most societies, it is taboo to touch the bust of a woman who is older than you, but that it not what bothered me most. What did is that after four months of government exhortations galore, very few people in this town seem to have heard the term “social distancing” or the homily that keeping your hands clean these days is next to godliness.
I am not convinced that these people act so carelessly because of ignorance; the message has been repeatedly delivered, but they have resolutely plugged their ears tight.
Moments later, I went to check on someone in a popular eatery where they sell goat-meat, and I was horrified. Not only did I see six people sitting at one table, breathing in each other’s faces, they were actually arguing whether coronavirus exists, some saying curfews and travel restrictions were merely an inconvenience imposed on them by an overbearing government.
When I remonstrated with the manager about the seating arrangements, he was not impressed. How many people in your village, he asked, have died of Covid-19?
Actually I don’t know any, but I didn’t have the heart to tell him that this placid state of affairs may never last if people don’t change their ways. This is because coronavirus has been set free to roam the land and police roadblocks, which could have controlled its spread, are no more.
This rather heartless assessment of what may happen in rural areas – one hopes – is not a self-fulfilling prophecy. Nobody in his right mind would wish such a visitation on his or her elderly parents, uncles and aunts back in the villages.
Some pestilences are preventable so long as the rules are followed, but who in Kenya cares about rules?
I was among those who urged the government to reopen the economy. Only a person with acute myopia would have failed to see that the country was grinding to a halt even as Covid-19 infections kept rising. When people do not work and they must eat, something has to give.
The pandemic has affected all businesses and the unemployment rate is the highest the country has ever recorded. It will probably take at least a decade before the economy recovers and jobs rebound.
This sense of haplessness is not peculiar to Kenya. What we in Kenya have over the developed world is our large, youthful demographic and the fact that the majority of the country’s population lives in rural areas where community infections are not common.
On the other hand, the public health infrastructure is quite creaky in those areas and county governments are said to be too ill-equipped to handle a spike in infections.
It is a given that there will be an influx of urban dwellers to their rural homes because thousands have lost their jobs and can no longer survive in town. Indeed, it is said that even before the President lifted the cessation of movement protocol, many had already packed their belongings waiting for the whistle.
Some will definitely carry the virus with them to the rural areas where they will mingle with cynical fellows who believe that washing hands with soap is a ritual for conceited city folk. Even hanging face masks around their necks seems to have become a tiresome chore.
In my view, the government has done a great deal to protect people from themselves, and as the President said on Monday, we must now take charge of our own lives.
More reassuring is the rider that if the infection rate accelerates after the reopening, then the government will impose even stricter measures.
In that respect, it should begin with rural areas. It would be tragic if rural Kenya became the new frontier for coronavirus infections. As matters stand now, in remote areas, it is impossible to enforce many of the vital rules.
The notion that Covid-19 prevalence is low in those areas should not lull the authorities to sleep. One thing that can be done immediately is to empower rural chiefs and police officers to ensure adherence to the Covid-19 protocols, not through terror arrests, but through gentler persuasive force.
No gatherings of any kind should be allowed, be they sports, wakes and funerals, or cultural activities that involve many. Since restrictions on such functions have not been lifted, it should be the duty of administration officials to discourage them with finality.
Mr Ngwiri is a consultant editor; [email protected]