Most countries around the world have been following the ‘stay at home’, ‘social distancing’ script, with the gradual addition of other measures like the mandatory wearing of masks, gloves, curfews and lockdowns. These came after countries closed their borders, cancelled international passenger flights, enforced quarantine rules for travellers, and testing for those exposed to the new coronavirus.
Kenya did the same, albeit belatedly. For instance, the authorities took a while to cancel flights, and even longer to enforce the mandatory quarantine. Only God knows what difference a quick call to action would have made, but now that we are here, our options are limited.
We must contend with this life in the time of coronavirus. It's a time when government and citizens are scrambling like blind mice, seemingly unable to abide by the rules of engagement of a country grappling with a pandemic. While some countries are rigidly enforcing the rules, and tracking populations to ensure that citizens follow them once out of sight and earshot, we have a situation in Kenya where folks in quarantine facilities are having ‘isolation parties’.
While a good number of responsible citizens can be seen wearing masks and maintaining at least a metre’s distance, others are still breathing down each other’s necks at bus stops, market places, supermarkets, chemists, and elsewhere.
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We know what we need to be doing, no doubt about that. But because of our unique circumstances, the onslaught of well-intentioned government communiques have been broadly ineffective. Take for instance the directive on the wearing of masks. When some retailers are selling one mask for as much as Sh200, they quickly become inaccessible to a large section of the population.
It would make a lot of sense for the authorities to institute a free-mask programme, and enforce a fixed and affordable retail price. Then we have the whole quarantine situation, which could just turn out to do more harm than good if steps are not taken to enforce real isolation from one person to the next. Right now they are being corralled like sheep.
But perhaps the most worrying thing of all is the widely held belief that the government is either lying, overstating the nature of the disease, or just generally untrustworthy. As a people, we have a trust issue, one that is manifesting as disregard and non-compliance. We have a trust issue and the government has an authority issue. Which is probably why the police were deployed to beat workers into submission on the first day of curfew – their deployers figured that folks needed to be terrorised into compliance.
That clearly didn’t work. Which leaves us with two options; either to limp along with this shaky and unenforceable strategy, or hit the reset button. Something needs to be done differently. It might be too late in the game to work on our trust and authority issues, but for one, the government can change its communication strategy.
It has failed to communicate the gravity of our situation. This thing is not being taken seriously by both sides of the Kenyan equation. And the lack of support, enforcement and follow up on the new rules of engagement has only added to the feeling that we are dealing with the ghost of a virus, not an actual disease. Citizens need to buy into the government’s containment strategy, but to do that they need support. They need structure. They need visible enforcement, and I don’t mean violence or police brutality, rather a framework that ensures that there is general compliance.
At the same time, this is a matter of life and death, and every responsible Kenyan should be cognisant of that fact. As we work on rebuilding the bridge between our trust and the government’s authority, there are things we can do at every level to stay safe. Simple things like hand washing, making sure not to cough ‘anyhow’, keeping our hands off surfaces and our faces, and maintaining a safe distance between ourselves and others. In this lag between strategy and proficient enforcement, it doesn’t hurt to take precautions.
It doesn’t hurt to take steps that may end up saving your life, especially if any of those steps are within your sphere of influence. Right now it seems like we’re shadow boxing with the spirit of coronavirus, but whether or not we can identify the attacker, it is real. Doing whatever you can to stay safe can only help, doing nothing could kill you.
Ms Masiga is Peace and Security editor, The Conversation