‘Ask not for whom the bell tolls’: why we are our relatives’ keepers

Friday May 01 2020

Parishioners wash hands as a preventive measure against the spread of coronavirus at Saint Don Bosco Catholic Parish in Lilongwe, Malawi, on March 22, 2020. PHOTO | AMOS GUMULIRA | AFP

By Austin Bukenya

“No person is an island, entire of itself, each is a piece of the continent. Each person’s death diminishes me, for I am involved in humankind. Therefore, send not to know for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for you.”

This is the main part of the piece on which our quotation above is based. I have updated and gender-sensitised it a little for you, the modern reader.

John Donne, the author of these lines, was a prominent 17th century churchman and was for many years Dean of the famous Saint Paul’s Cathedral in Central London.

He was eminent there for his sonorous sermons, some of which he published as creative writing. Donne was also a prolific and outstanding poet, remembered for his declaration that he regarded poetry as his mistress and divinity as his wife.

John Donne’s lines leapt back to my mind for three interrelated reasons within the context of this Covid-19 pandemic.

The first is that John Donne wrote the lines out of the lived experience of the recurrent Black Plague epidemics of the London of his time, which he survived.


Secondly, they reminded me of my very first comments on the pandemic, that the coronavirus reminds us of our global interconnectedness and thus the need to work together as humanity.

Thirdly, the lines resonated with my perennial advocacy of East African unity and the need to coordinate our activities in the region.


I need not tell you, now, what it is like to live through the horrors of an epidemic. My own expectation, like that of many others, is that the best solution to the Covid-19 crisis will be the introduction of an effective vaccine.

Medical pundits tell us that the minimum time within which this can be done is 18 months. But even if we were to count from now, my sincere hope is that it will be much sooner than that, for a number of reasons.

One, of course, is my incurable optimism. Secondly, and more seriously, a lot of work on anti-viral vaccines has been going on for a long time, and our medical scientists are systematically adapting their findings to the defeat of the coronavirus.

Thirdly and most importantly, these are unusual times and they demand unusual actions.

With all due regard for our safety, our valiant doctors must start thinking outside the box, and many of them are already doing so.

The books may still be saying that the trial protocols require so many years and so many thousand results before approval.

But those protocols were formulated in times past, when techniques like gene-sequencing and computer simulation were not known.

In our urgent and desperate times, the medics need to, and will, reconsider and adapt them to our realities. Have you, for example, heard that Professor Andrew Pollard, Dr Rachael Gilbert and their colleagues at Oxford University started coronavirus vaccine human trials in Britain on Thursday last week?


What touched me most about the Oxonians’ effort was the stipulation their findings will be shared immediately with the rest of the world.

This brings us back to Donne’s insight into the fact that plagues are not selective in their viciousness. Once they break out, we are all at their mercy.

The tolling bell, marking the fall of another victim to the epidemic, is not a remote news item out there.

It is a signal to you and me, and a reminder that we are all in this together, and we must all work together to wage the struggle to its successful conclusion.

With this awareness, such follies as selfishness, finger-pointing and stigmatisation are utterly disgusting and unacceptable.

Thus, blaming the Chinese over how and when they disclosed the coronavirus is, at present, irrelevant.

Even more nauseating is the racist and irrational victimisation to which we saw our own people subjected in several Chinese cities as the epidemic began to ease out there.

I could not help remembering how firmly our leaders spoke against and cracked down on any signs of Sino-phobia (China-hate) in our society.

Another startling aspect of discrimination is the stigmatisation of those who have actually recovered from Covid-19.

Stories of Covid-19 survivors being avoided and ostracised by their relatives and neighbours continue to surface all over East Africa. Would these malicious people have been happier if their relatives or neighbours had died of the virus?


I am not a fan of Boris Johnson, the British Prime Minister. But I was strongly impressed with the way he handled his Covid-19 infection, illness and eventual recovery.

It is a story full of significance for all of us, in realistic prudence, tenacious courage, and the efficacy of competent medical practices, with a bit of luck thrown in.

Imagine what would have happened last Monday, if Mr Johnson’s colleagues had stigmatised him and boycotted his first post-recovery Cabinet meeting.

Finally, John Donne’s observation that no one is an island recalls my insistent and strident claim that East African regional unity was and is the most precious legacy that the founders of our states left us.

Historical events might have dimmed and weakened this legacy. But developments like the coronavirus are rude reminders that, unless we learn to live and work together as a region, our future will, at best, remain dubious.


Kenya and Uganda, for example, can clamp lockdowns and other pre-emptive measures on their citizens. But these will not defeat the virus in the region unless Tanzania cooperates with similar steps.

It is heartening to note that our leaders are currently discussing, by teleconference, the best course of action to take, as a region, in the face of the pandemic.

But if all the organs of the East African Community had been properly actualised, there would already have been established channels for the implementation of such action.

Incidentally, I hear that Boris Johnson has had new offspring, a baby boy, by his partner, Carrie Symonds.

Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and literature; [email protected]