Covid-19: Is the moment of truth finally here?

Burial of a Covid-19 victim. Many Kenyans now know of someone who has died of the disease. [File, Standard]

At the onset of Covid-19 in Kenya, we told Health minister Mutahi Kagwe that we did not know anyone who had died of the disease.

I am sure that answer has changed. Many Kenyans, particularly around Nairobi, know someone close or familiar who has succumbed to this virus. 

Data released daily shows a worrying pattern; the percentage of positive cases from samples taken is going up. It’s a clear indicator of community transmission; it is no longer a disease of the jet-set group or well-travelled Kenyans.

Nairobi bears the brunt of the disease, not surprising given the movement of the masses for leisure, business and search for a livelihood. It seems the virus was allowed to circulate within certain high-risk areas after the cessation of movement in and out of the regions.

Three weeks ago, the counties were flung open. It’s a decision that has left me scratching my head. It was assumed that we shall be personally responsible, for ourselves and each other. I doubt if there was an exodus to the countryside, but anecdotal evidence seems to suggest lots of Nairobians left the city for the countryside.

One group is the domestic house workers, released to see their families in different parts of the country. We have also made trips to the countryside to see those who really matter to us. The trips are hastened by the belief fueled by rumours that there will be a long lockdown. Surprisingly, the temperature checks in counties for visitors are gone.

One of the biggest questions for behavioural scientists and our leaders is whether Kenyans can take care of themselves or each other beyond the immediate family members, and the survival instinct.

My suggestion is, it is unlikely. We have become irresponsible, despite the popularity of religion. We put on masks because of the police, we must be monitored to do the right thing.

Maybe it’s a legacy of colonialism and schooling. We had to be supervised to work in plantations, we had to be monitored in class to stop making noise. It will take time before we learn to self-supervise. Those with school-going children now appreciate the work of teachers in ensuring homework is done, and other chores.

Add this legacy to capitalism, the ceaseless search for money and wealth. We are unlikely to care much about each other. We see that every day from corruption where no one cares about the long-term effect on society. 

Before Covid-19 we had lots of other problems that were never addressed because we did not care and the problems did not affect us and our families directly. That includes polluting rivers. Covid-19 has made it clear that your problem is our problem. The rising cases will make that reality sink.

At the national level, the cost of supervising and monitoring Kenyans is high. The institutions reserved for that are many and varied, from the police to CID, intelligence services, anti-corruption commission and anti-doping agency, among others.

Read the Constitution and you will find enough evidence that we are supposed to be supervised and monitored. The hefty fines in many laws leave no doubt that we must be coerced or threatened to do the right thing. Why did we expect different behaviour on Covid-19 mitigation measures?

We predicted in this forum the current scenario, where tough governments are fairing better in controlling Covid-19 than those where freedom or laissez faire rule the day. Compare Kenya with other members of the East African Community.

Given that we love being supervised, how shall we fare given freedom for self-supervision? The government gave us three weeks to experiment. The answer was obvious and the Covid-19 cases support that.

The other big question is, what  next ?

Safeguard lives

By locking certain parts of the country, the government showed Kenyans it cared and can go to any extent to safeguard our lives. Then along the way, economic and political necessity led to opening of the economy. Not said loudly, the lockdown was becoming ineffective with Kenyans using shortcuts to leave Nairobi or other restricted areas.

What will happen after 21 days? Lockdown would be hard to reintroduce, but not impossible. The government would borrow from the reality and ask Kenyans if they know someone close to them who has succumbed to Covid-19.

Based on new reality, our moment of truth, we can now start changing our behaviour. We need to go beyond Covid-19 statistics to how we are getting the virus; is it in parties, public transport, meetings and so on? Contact tracing should record our behaviour too. We then can take corrective measures.

It’s a debatable question if Kenyans are likely to give up some rights to stop the spread of this virus, the same way we give up some rights to turn the tide on terrorism.

That will mean going beyond expecting Kenyans to self-supervise and monitor ourselves. An injection of State power is needed to supplement our lack of self-supervision. Are we not in a state of war with the virus?

I fear that with more deaths we could become reckless, “after all we shall die of Covid-19”. Where are men and women giving us hope, instead of trumpeting the number of body bags and graveyards they have bought?

Successful countries against Covid-19 have used state power, either softly espoused by well-coordinated communication in Germany to total lockdowns in China. What is our strategy without flip-flopping?

Finally, I met my moment of truth by attending a funeral of a Covid-19 case recently. The sight of men wearing PPE that resemble astronauts left me in no doubt we must do something as individuals, and as governments before a vaccine or a cure is found.

- The writer is associate professor at the University of Nairobi

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