War on virus will be won on persuasion, buy-in, not guns

Tuesday March 31 2020

Police subject commuters to inhumane treatment at Likoni crossing in Mombasa, as they enforced nationwide curfew on March 27, 2020. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP


After the initial missteps and blunders, the government has done a commendable job in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

It appears to be on top of the situation in regard to tracking infections, as well as prevention and containment measures and unusual displays of transparency and competence in public communications. But it is also evident that this government is well practised in the fine art of taking two steps forward and one backward.

By now, many Kenyans recognise the mortal threat the global pandemic poses to the nation. This is evidenced by how keenly many have adapted to the simple regime of properly washing hands as frequently as possible.


We will always have the usual naysayers blinded by religious claptrap, baseless conspiracy theories, plain ignorance or just reflex distrust of government. However, I believe a majority appreciate the urgent need for drastic measures, beyond voluntary social distancing, to contain the coronavirus.

Despite the economic disruptions hitting particularly hard the majority poor, who live from hand to mouth, the need for a dusk-to-dawn curfew would be widely understood. But instead of using education and persuasion, the government, in typical fashion, responds with brute force.


The primitive violence meted out on civilians at the Likoni ferry crossing on the first day of the curfew last Friday cannot be justified. Even if the men in uniform were provoked by stone throwers and hecklers, they should have responded with utmost restraint.

In Likoni and elsewhere, security forces brought into disrepute their uniform, training and the ‘disciplined services’ tag. They also undermined public support for the very tough measures that are vital to a successful war against the coronavirus. The heavy-handed martial approach is also evident in the security response to random keyboard warriors who may have posted untruths about the pandemic.

At his daily media briefing on Sunday, Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe wasted precious minutes condemning Dagoretti South MP John Kiarie over a contentious post on Twitter which claimed that 7,000 recent arrivals into the country had been quarantined on the coronavirus watch.


And as Mr Kagwe diverted his attention from more important business, the fellow politician was reportedly under police interrogation over the false report.

Mr Kiarie did not kill anyone. He did not loot the public coffers dry or carry out an armed bank heist. He did not incite genocidal ethnic conflicts or carry out some deadly terrorist act. He simply told a lie, and there is no evidence that it incited any public unrest or violence.

The same applies to the social media posts by controversial bloggers Robert Alai and Cyprian Nyakundi, who are both facing criminal charges for allegedly spreading falsehoods on Covid-19.

It has never been a crime to tell a lie or to be incorrect. It may be irresponsible, dishonest and even downright stupid but, unless the lie actually results in actual harm to society or individuals, it is not worth the time in police resources already overwhelmed by real crime.

When we focus on Mr Kiarie’s padding of the numbers, we ignore the fact that his contentious tweet had some very important information that the authorities, and all of us, would be foolish to ignore.
Mr Mutahi — otherwise a practised PR and communications professional who has won plaudits since being thrown into the deep end — knows as well as anyone that the MP spoke the truth on an inevitable surge in coronavirus infections and fatalities if projections by experts hold.


We can’t wait till infections hit the 100,000 mark before we start building emergency tented and prefab hospitals with adequate ICU units, the all-important ventilators and other equipment. Meanwhile, we are still stuck at shortage of gloves, face masks and hand sanitisers!

We also have to give serious thought to an upgrade of the dusk-to-dawn curfew to a total halt on all but essential movement. That may be the only way to break the infection chain.

But logic and common sense dictates that it cannot be done before necessary interventions to ensure vulnerable citizens are not saved from the coronavirus but then killed by starvation.

These are not issues that the law and order machinery can process. Lies and falsehoods are best fought with truth and superior information, not the ‘khakistocracy’ with guns, teargas and truncheons that so many misguided advocates of the police state pine for.

In the meantime, we must prepare our people for the likelihood that, if we don’t do the right thing today, we will, in a few months, be staring not at 1,000 infections but 1,000 deaths. Daily!

[email protected] @MachariaGaitho