What could we have done if we knew coronavirus or a similar pandemic was coming? One possible answer is nothing. We would have argued, let it come first.
A long debate on whether it’s a hoax would follow. Skepticism is one of our currencies. We would still have been skeptical if the announcement came from the government.
It is the big difference between the developed and developing countries, the trust in government and our institutions. We spend more hours electing the government, and talking politics than in developed countries, yet distrust the same leaders we elect.
It’s probably about the way they have behaved over time. This distrust is manifested by our reluctance to follow government directives, even when they are for our good.
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One hopes that the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) has focused on this distrust of the governments which more than lack of resources or money, stalls our social-economic progress.
It also breeds corruption. You are unlikely to steal from an employer or institution you trust.
Will shift to blockchains because of Covid-19 finally enforce this trust?
Enough digression. What if we believed Covid-19 was inevitable. What could we have done?
The fact that we rarely get natural disasters such as earthquakes, hurricanes or cold and dark winters leaves us too relaxed and slow to respond to disasters like pandemics. Some could argue our deep faith in higher powers makes us relax. Add our traditions that emphasize today more than tomorrow.
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They even say tomorrow will take care of itself in some parts of this country. Needless to say, we have learnt to be helpless.
If we got convinced Covid-19 was coming, we could have done a few things, which we can still do.
One, we could have planned our buildings better, with more space among them, and with open grounds.
We would have ensured every estate has a park where residents can take walks or just sit and relax. Who said Uhuru Park can’t be replicated elsewhere. Who said we can’t have another Karura Forest elsewhere?
Think of men, women and children in crowded estates amid Covid-19? It’s one of the beauties of developed countries where they ensure basics are available for even the most disadvantaged members of society.
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There are parks neighbouring American ghettos.
In Kenya, even the most advantaged have no simple facilities like parks or jogging trails. Any park in the new Runda? Loresho or Muthaiga?
If we knew coronavirus was coming, we could have designed our schools better. They are now as crowded as our estates. We seem to hate open spaces everywhere.
Our ultimate nightmare now is overcrowded schools through the 100 per cent transition to high school against coronavirus which calls for social distancing. We could have capped the size of schools to make them more manageable. Do we have land banks for new schools?
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With census every ten years, it’s easy to predict the number of schools, hospitals and other facilities needed.
We also need inbuilt redundancy in case of a disaster like a pandemic. The space industry is famous for such inbuilt redundancy - you can’t go repairing a Spacecraft in the orbit of another planet. Even our leisure would have been more planned.
We love watching the English premier league and betting over it. We love watching golf too.
Suppose we have developed our sports with more stadiums, golf courses and movie theatres? We would have taken our hobbies more seriously if we knew Covid-19 was coming.
The belief that watching TV and live streaming are entertainment should be expunged from our minds.
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There is something human about yelling inside a stadium or a movie theatre. There is something human about playing football, golf or any other game physically not sitting on a couch. Covid-19 seems to be reinforcing a false belief that we can do anything online. Zoom or WebEx meeting will never be like live meetings.
A face to face class will never be like an online class. Your laughter on the screen will never be like real one.
Think loudly, we can order our shopping including ready food online and stay home. But shopping is not just about buying, you get out of the house, meet new people and relax.
With no parks or open spaces, shopping has become a form of entertainment in Kenya. We do not go to hotels because we can’t eat at home. Really? You can eat your food in a restaurant in five minutes but you often sit there for an hour, time to meet with others and relax, which is factored in the price of tea or your drink.
With Covid-19 in mind, we could have changed our farming, to ensure we are self-sufficient in food. Most countries do that by subsiding farmers - paying them to ensure they can cover their costs. We could have ensured the food we grow can boost our immunity.
Suppose we put as much effort in growing food crops as we put in growing flowers or tea? We could have changed our system of interconnectedness, the hub and spoke, all roads leading to Nairobi. We could have built regional centres, more like the former provincial headquarters.
Noted how the towns are the epicentres of Covid-19? We should have dispersed them earlier. Can we put limits on the size of cities?
Beyond the borders, we could have thought about trade, exchange of goods and services, and put some focus on possible exchange of pathogens. Did the design of ships, planes and airports ever plan for a Covid-19 scenario?
If we knew Covid-19 was coming, we could have become more serious in our homes, offices, our careers, our leadership, and other tasks.
Covid-19 will devastate societies that have no working systems made of unserious people, who prefer to pass the buck and take no responsibility.
Did we take globalisation too far at the extent of rokolisation (localisation)? With trade imbalances and outsourcing, we seem to have split the world into local and global citizens. Could we have carried everyone along? With Covid-19 in mind, we could have been tenderer with our planet. We could have polluted it less, kept the rivers flowing and accepted that animals and plants have the same rights to this planet as men.
Noted how they are unscathed by the pandemic?
Let us be extravagant with ideas. If we knew coronavirus was coming, we could have accelerated the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence. Who knows they could be there with a cure or vaccine for Covid-19. Maybe they seeded the earth with the virus!
We can’t reverse time, but Covid-19 has taught us a simple lesson, we must plan for the unexpected, we must have inbuilt flexibility. We may not be prophets but with our data, creativity and wisdom, we can plan for worst-case scenarios.
Covid-19 will force us to question our assumptions, our plans more deeply. Despite its devastation, it’s a wakeup call to humanity, even questioning our centrality in Earth’s ecosystem. What lesson have you learnt from Covid-19? Share with us, please.
-The writer is an associate professor at the University of Nairobi