In the middle of one of America’s worst financial crises, Franklin Roosevelt, the 32nd president of the United States, famously told the Americans that they “had nothing to fear but fear itself”.
Ninety years later, Kenyans might want to revisit FDR’s wise counsel as they deal with yet another existential crisis that threatens to wipe out entire livelihoods and sectors.
As Kenya grapples with the spread of the coronavirus, fear of it, rather than the virus itself, has been the first one to take a Kenyan life.
A man in Kibundani village, Kwale County, is reported to have been killed by a mob of youths on suspicion he had the virus, which has so far claimed more than 8,981 lives worldwide. There are 220,313 confirmed cases globally, seven in Kenya.
And as the country remains under the grip of the virus, such incidents will only get worse as the rumour mills keep churning out one falsehood after another. Fear-mongers have found perfect grounds on social media.
Since last Friday when the first Kenyan tested positive for the virus, a whirlwind of fear has been spreading around the country. It is not only the muffling of sneezes and restrained handshakes that we are concerned with but also how the fear of this pandemic is morbidly infecting the nation’s psyche.
Fear of the novel virus, which causes Covid-19, is threatening to break our bonds of friendship and nationhood. It is not really the virus that is killing the economy – we only have seven confirmed cases of coronavirus and no fatality so far.
It is the fear that the virus is engendering in its wake that is gutting our markets. It is this fear that is dimming consumer and investor confidence. Traders at the securities market in Westlands, Nairobi, are just as worried as those in Kibuye open-air market.
It is the fear of being in a crowd, of being in a market where we can exchange goods and services, that is shattering our economy.
In Kisumu, Governor Anyang’ Nyong’o has announced the closure of all open-air markets, including Kibuye. His counterpart in Kisii County James Ongwae has done the same with Daraja Mbili market and sent home employees except those working in departments offering essential services. In Kakamega, Wycliffe Oparanya ordered closure of mortuaries ostensibly to fight the virus. And in Eldoret, boda boda operators have been banned from the town centre for 30 days. Not spared are bars, public parks and stadiums.
All of a sudden, governors across the country are deploying morbid, if not populist, measures that are only succeeding at spreading fear and blame. While this newspaper encourages proactive measures to contain coronavirus, we would like to remind governors that sanctions in themselves are abstractions and that people live with, and through diseases. By fixating on containing the virus at all cost, we risk destroying livelihoods and losing sight of the everyday resilience of our peoples.
The response outside Nairobi so far has been of panic and resignation to imminent death, instead of a “demonstration of collective strength and defiance, of people’s refusal to be quelled by the virus and the quarantine, and their desire to cheer each other on”, as one scientist aptly argued in The Conversation.
Roosevelt described the fear Americans had as “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyses needed efforts to convert retreat into advance”.
It is time for Kenyans to fight back. We should be cautious, not fearful. We should wash our hands, keep a decent social distance, avoid handshakes and use masks if we suspect we are infected.
This is not the time to discriminate or speculate. Covid-19 is not a death sentence. Of the 220,313 cases, almost 40 per cent, or 85,769, have recovered. Only four per cent, or 8,981, have succumbed to the disease.
This is not a call for complacency, but for understanding: An understanding that if we apply the right control measures to this crisis, we will defeat it.
As President Uhuru Kenyatta said, we have faced greater crises in the past, and we have always triumphed by coming together in the spirit of national unity and cooperation.
“This pandemic will test us, as it is testing all countries in every corner of the world, but it will not defeat us. If we pull together, and everybody does their part, we shall overcome its worst impacts.” That’s the spirit.