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Covid-19 is cruel, so should be our vocabulary on it

Friday April 3 2020

coronavirus

Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe warns Kenyans against contravening guidelines to prevent spread of coronavirus, at Afya House, Nairobi, on April 2, 2020. PHOTO | SILA KIPLAGAT | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

FAITH ONEYA
By FAITH ONEYA
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“If you rattle a snake, you must be prepared to be bitten by it” are words made famous by the late John Michuki, a politician who was famed for streamlining the matatu industry and ridding the country of Mungiki.

He violated human rights in the process, but of greater interest was the toughness of his language and how this reality was reflected on the ground.

The Swahili have a saying: Dawa ya moto ni moto (the remedy for fire is fire). But despite living in a house burning with Covid-19 (Kenya is now in the red zone), some Kenyans are going about their business like there is no fire.

Case in point are the more than 700 people whose idea of social distancing was to hold a meeting at Maanzoni Lodge in Machakos.

Some religious and political leaders also believe that self-isolation and social distancing mean holding mass, attending funerals and holding meetings.

Covid-19 cases have been on the rise since the first case was reported and Kenya has reached a dangerous phase, according to experts, as the cases are no longer imported but spreading within the community.

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INSUFFICIENT RESOURCES

It’s forecasted that Kenya will have 5,000 cases by mid-April and 10,000 cases by end of April if we disregard ministry guidelines.

So far, one Covid-19 related death has been reported. Reports indicate that the health system in Kenya is not ready for a surge in cases.

We don’t have enough health workers and so far only 70 ICU beds available for use in hospitals, so God forbid if that becomes the difference between life and death.

Yet the language used by the government to persuade Kenyans to change their behaviour does not effectively communicate our proximity to illness and death.

If the country is indeed on fire, where’s the fire in the language? Where’s the fire in ensuring that some of the recommended actions are enforced while maintaining human rights?

Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe’s eloquence, sobriety and diplomacy have inspired confidence in Kenyans that we will beat Covid-19.

PAYING THE PRICE

In his press briefing on Monday, March 30, he was the picture of a man in control when he urged boda-boda riders to carry only one passenger and added that both must wear masks. Nairobi residents were also advised not to travel upcountry.

While his words are reassuring and the measures welcome, they unfortunately also seem to have bred complacency among Kenyans, who imagine that the country is in control of a virus that has ravaged the world.

The polite language he used is incommensurate with the rude realities that Covid-19 is forcing us to live with.

We are paying the price for the politeness and hospitality we are world-famous for.

Maybe that is why, as other governments were closing their borders, we were leaving ours wide open.

Perhaps it is the same politeness that stops us from asking the government questions like: When and how will the sanitisers be distributed? How will they ensure that boda-bodas comply with these suggestions?

The government need not “urge or suggest” anything to Kenyans at such a time. It has all the powers to implement these suggestions, without violating human rights.

APPROPRIATE LANGUAGE

Nobody is calling for brute force or archaic measures like what was witnessed at the teething stage of the implementation of the curfew, which unfortunately also claimed the life of 13-year-old Yassin Hussein Moyo, whose only crime seemed to have been that he was playing on a balcony.

The Health CS has a tough job, and he may be relying heavily on his PR background to make the reality palatable to Kenyans.

But the time is ripe to change tune and follow up directives with clear pathways to getting there. His tenure will be judged by how he gets Kenya out of this fire.

As the city resurrects from this inferno, because it will, one can only hope that the CS will find and start using language that will provide the harrowingly detailed narrative of the devastating effects of Covid-19 as illuminated by countries like Italy.

And maybe then, Kenyans will be forced to listen

The writer comments on social and gender issues. [email protected]; Twitter: @FaithOneya

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