Social distancing is 'unAfrican' but does this virus care?

Thursday March 19 2020

A day before the report that Kenya had one coronavirus case, a friend called to challenge our culture and its place in times of national pandemics, especially those that are spread through air and physical contact. His point was that unless Kenya, and indeed many African societies, abandon some of their cultural practices during such times, we can easily be annihilated by a pandemic.

I had barely given the matter enough thought in relation to cultural practices when the first case was announced and the government and other supposed professionals starting sending out messages regarding self-protection and preservation. The public joined in the furore.

It is very dangerous for the public to send out contradictory information or even share it socially when a situation has been declared by the World Health Organization to be a pandemic.

Let me leave the Public Health Act to the professionals, assuming that is what is being applied, when those spreading fake news on the Covid-19 are promised arrest. The messages emanating from the government are ‘copy and paste’ of what i assume to be international guidelines, but which some policy maker should localise to make sense within the Kenyan context, if they are to be of any use to the public.

The first ammo the government gave the public is to self-quarantine should one suspect that they have the virus or should they have come into contact with anyone who might have it. Living in a country that is dominated by families with shared facilities and whose level of interaction with neighbours and within member, defies any meaning of the word self-quarantine.

It is even worse trying to apply that term to visitors who seem to continue entering Kenyan freely. Where can such people self-quarantine? At a hotel, cleaning their own rooms and cooking their own meals? How many Kenyan families enjoy private facilities at individual level, let alone being able to afford them for a visitor?


According to the World Bank, 41 per cent of people living in Nairobi live in informal settlements. You would think that government bureaucrats would understand that this means that this part of the population is affected by poor sanitation, lack of running water and many times cannot afford three square meals a day, let alone sanitisers and the privilege of washing hands several times a day.


Several statements alleged to be from the government advise against visiting prisoners. First these are people who are already socio-culturally quarantined. Warders however still go home to their families and return to prisons. I doubt there is usually a stampede during visiting hours to warrant, the facilities and their occupants to get priority consideration in a national emergency situation. That is one part of the population whose exact location the government should know. Or has someone been watching too many movies?

I would be more worried about social cultural activities such as funerals and weddings. The interactions at the preparations for weddings can infect whole families and clans. I can see the aunties all tasting the stew from a cooking spoon that is nonchalantly passed around, to ‘taste salt’, test the tenderness of the meat, evaluate the quality of the soup, etc. That cooking spoon is a lethal weapon, when discussing contagious diseases.

The dangers of the cultural obsession with funerals, I guess borrowed from our colonisers and religious practices, needs special attention at this time. Funerals are the one occasion ‘everyone turns’, from family members to local politicians. People travel from far and wide and one infected person can interact with people from many corners of this country at a funeral.

The culture of shaking hands is one that is likely to skip people’s attention, but can prove to be very dangerous, as it is a reflective action when people meeting. Very few people operate on the level of such high consciousness that they will remember not to extend a hand in greeting.

Other dangers especially in rural settings include sharing of traditional brews using straws, sharing of food on plates and the worse might even be the lack of respect of vital space exhibited in public spaces, including churches, mosques and public transport.
Culture however is dynamic and with coronavirus, change in some of these traditions seems eminent.

Twitter: @muthonithangwa