With Covid-19, be your brother’s keeper, or we all perish together

Friday March 27 2020
MATPIC

Muslims sanitise themselves to prevent Covid-19 spread, in Nakuru Town on March 20, 2020. PHOTO | CHEBOITE KIGEN | NATION MEDIA GROUP

By MUTUMA MATHIU

The novel coronavirus pandemic is the most comprehensive mess the world has ever seen.

It has threatened our jobs, our lives, our health, our parents, our future … it puts in jeopardy everything.

Even though in Kenya it is relatively early days, it is clearly getting worse. With 31 cases after only 600 tests, the only ray of hope is that all Covid-19 cases can be traced to persons who travelled from abroad — meaning, perhaps, there is little evidence of runaway community transmission.

But as the number of cases increases, there is the likelihood that the tracing teams will miss one infected contact, which will establish a catastrophic cluster.

Hundreds of students and other travellers have come home. Very few of them have been isolated or tested.

Not all patients show symptoms and it is possible there are healthy carriers infecting others.

DANGER TO ECONOMY

From what we have seen, Kenyans are quite irresponsible. Once they travel and get exposed, they do not self-quarantine.

And when they are placed in mandatory quarantine, they expect someone to stand over them with a gun to stop them from mingling with and endangering others.

Equally, not everyone is obeying the social-distancing rules: there are people begging bar owners to lock them up in the premises so that they can continue to drink and make merry behind closed doors.

My own opinion is that the window to snuffing out the virus and preventing it from bringing down our entire society is fast closing.

But I understand the dangers of locking down a country such as ours, where there are very poor households that rely on a daily wage and the systems for distributing essentials are poor.

Also, a shutdown would knock down our weak, overexposed and heavily indebted economy.

The prime consideration in determining whether to shut down the country is, of course, security.

SECURITY THREAT

If people are cooped up in their homes against their will, especially when they don’t accept the logic of stopping them from going out to work to feed their families, the risk of rioting and a breakdown of social order is real.

In such a situation, the capacity of the General Service Unit and other parts of the National Police Service to maintain control could be severely tested.

In rolls the military. While the romantic image of the KDF as the all-conquering superior fighting force has generally been left in the sands of Somalia — where allegations have been made, fairly or unfairly, that our heroes have taken to their heels in the face of the enemy — the military does have the capacity, in terms of logistics and brute force, to enforce a lockdown.

Many Kenyans are grateful for the professional job they have done in keeping terrorists out of the cities.

But our previous experience with the deployment of KDF in the population — first at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, when it caught fire, and Westgate Mall, during the terrorist attack — would tend to strongly suggest that a frontline role for troops in dealing with civilians is a risky gambit.

LOGISTICAL CHALLENGE

The military can do the logistics, which they are good at, while our bumbling police officers can do the job of suppressing the population, which they excel at.

The second big problem is food for the urban poor. If they don’t go to work, they can’t buy food.

So, if there is a lockdown, then the government will have to buy and distribute food to hundreds of thousands of people.

This is expensive and, in such a corrupt society, fraught with danger. It is a logistical challenge the likes of which is rarely encountered.

The provincial administration could, of course, easily distribute the food — if you can find a way of stopping the chiefs from stealing it and under-feeding the population.

In urban communities, where even basic sanitation is a big problem, finding clean water, especially in the context of disease, is quite a headache.

Again, the government would have to find the water and take it to those confined to their homes. Don’t forget that the city water supply is not enough for everyone.

JOINT EFFORT

And then there is the whole question of being cooped up with your children, your wife, your relatives and your dreadful thoughts in a tiny shack, without access to the brews that you use to numb the pain of daily life, no source of entertainment, either because you don’t have a radio or TV or because the power supply is unstable since everyone is at home with their lights on.

But, there is no choice. If we are to have a chance of surviving and getting back to normal life, we must lock ourselves up in our homes for at least three weeks.

During that period, the asymptomatic infected will manifest the signs, be tested and treated. Only the immediate family will be exposed and they can be isolated and provided with the care they need.

After the three weeks, we will disinfect public spaces and slowly bring life back to normal, taking care to ensure that we do not import the virus again.

The lesson of Covid-19 is this: our survival depends on not just taking care of yourself but also taking care of the people around you, because if they go down, so will you.

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