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Of this viral crown and the humbling lessons for us all

Saturday March 28 2020


Nyeri residents are sensitised on coronavirus, on March 27, 2020. PHOTO | JOSEPH KANYI | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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“Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.” Do you recognise the quote?

Whenever in doubt, just hazard a guess by saying “Shakespeare”. That is a stock literary trick, and you can make it even smarter by uttering it with an ingenuous rising intonation, suggesting a question.

It often works, as it would in the case of the quotation above. Crowns, however, came to my mind because of this coronavirus monster terrorising us.

“Corona”, as you probably know, is the Latin word for “crown”. Scientists have told us that they called the terrible scourge “corona” because of, irony of ironies, its graceful, crown-like look under the microscopes.

Irony, the absurd incongruity between expectations and experiences, between appearance and reality, is inherent in life and in our existence.

But let me get on to the most important points I would like to make about the coronavirus.


This is because many of you have asked me what I think about the dire situation, assuring me that you care for my thoughts.

“Thoughts”, though, may be too strong a term for my rather ad hoc and unsystematic sentiments.


Let us simply call them feelings, and I will share with you three of my strongest feelings about Covid-19, even as it is highlighted by the ironies around it.

The first is that we will defeat it. This feeling is partly informed by my incurable optimism. But it is also backed by history.

This is not the first epidemic that humanity has faced in its long, torturous existence. Stretching back into mythical, legendary and scriptural eons, plagues have been with us.

They came, terrorised us and died out, leaving us, homo sapiens (intelligent humans), soldiering on.

In recorded history, we survived the ravages of horrors like the Black Death or Great Plague (1347-1351), the Spanish Flu (1918-1920) and, even more recently, Sars and avian flus, not to mention debilities like poliomyelitis and smallpox.

Speaking of smallpox, my grandmother, Hajara Nakku, the one born in Bagamoyo, survived it, at the turn of the 20th century, and so did I, in Dar es Salaam, in 1965.

But that is a story for another day. It goes, however, to underline the resilience of not only the human mind but also the human body in fighting such afflictions.

Incidentally, I am watching with keen interest how my friend and former colleague, Kisumu Governor Prof Anyang’ Nyong’o, is going to lead the anti-coronavirus fight in his county.

Do you remember his beating off a vicious cancer attack on him some years ago?


The most important aspect of my assurance, however, is that “we” that I mentioned at the beginning of my feelings.

We will win the battle because we are aware that we are all in it together.

It is ironical that it should take a threat of such colossal proportions to remind us of the indivisible unity of our race.

In this increasingly toxic and fractious world, shredded to rags by petty and often imaginary differences of race, colour, ethnicity, language, ideology, money, class, politics and nationality, a calamity like the coronavirus acts as a wake-up call, however rude, that we either work together or perish together.

It is not me teaching the harsh lesson. I am only learning it with you and the rest of us, from the stark reality.

My second feeling, briefly, is that we will emerge smarter and more intelligent from this pandemic. This should be pretty obvious.

Indeed, it is a necessary condition for our survival, as it has always been in the past. As the aphorism goes, necessity is the mother of invention.

I have no doubt at all that vaccines and other medications will be on the scene, maybe sooner than we expect, to contain the coronavirus bug.


We need not share some big people’s enthusiasm about itchy chloroquine, but it is reasonable to assume that several existing drugs can help.

More importantly, however, the new habits and precautions that we are learning as a way of fighting the pandemic are also making us more aware of ourselves and our environment, and also of our relationships with one another.

My physiotherapist, for example, has always emphasised to me the importance of washing hands, with soap.

But, quite honestly, it is only in the wake of this coronavirus era that I have come to appreciate the significance of this simple procedure.

Similarly, the whole raft of measures that we should take to improve the hygiene of our surroundings is an eye-opener to the dangerous laxity with which we tend to treat our immediate environment.

Had you ever realised, for example, what a hot channel of contagion transmission a simple computer, laptop, phone or even TV remote can be?

I need not expatiate on the affective aspects of social-distancing, lockdowns, working from home, and homeschooling.

Most of you may be experiencing these more intimately and acutely than I.


The obvious expectation is that these new experiences will radically and permanently change our social outlooks and relationships, hopefully for the better.

My final feeling is that the coronavirus calamity will leave humanity wiser and humbler than before.

The basic irony here is that, here we were, with our science and super-technology, beginning to imagine that we were more or less omniscient and omnipotent, all-knowing and all-powerful.

Then a microscopic little dudu (insect) emerges out of nowhere and threatens to wipe out our entire race within the foreseeable future.

For me, this is a reminder of two things. The first is that we are probably weaker and more vulnerable than we would like to imagine.

Secondly, our science and technology may not be as infallible and as invincible as their doctrinaire advocates would like us to believe.

The conclusions are for you to draw. But for me, as a person of firm spiritual faith, I will fight the monster with my four resolutions: to live, love, labour and learn.

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